10 questions that follow the shocks of 2015 General Election in Northern Ireland
How will the political drama play out?
As the dust settles on the general election and David Cameron gets back to work in Downing Street, Darwin Templeton looks at 10 questions that will be answered over the next 12 months.
1. Will Stormont survive?
The election campaign provided a distraction to the welfare reform deadlock, but it hasn’t gone away, you know. And the divisions could get deeper — the Conservatives, now with the Lib Dem handbrake removed, want to take another £12 billion out of the national welfare bill. If a new deal cannot be found in Northern Ireland, the Executive’s budget will be thrown into chaos — and the Assembly could collapse.
2. Has Sinn Fein support peaked?
The loss of Fermanagh and South Tyrone grabbed the headlines, but there were other worrying signs for the party. Their share of the vote shrank and high-profile challengers in Upper Bann, South Belfast and Foyle fell short. Abstentionism is a hard sell and in North Belfast Gerry Kelly found himself under pressure over a “sectarian” leaflet. Next year’s elections north and south of the border were always the bigger prize for Sinn Fein, but this was a far-from-ideal preparation.
3. Will unionist hostilities resume?
Mike Nesbitt (pictured left) wasted no time in declaring the pact over — and was slammed by Sammy Wilson. The deal delivered seats for Gavin Robinson and Tom Elliott, but their failure to agree in South Belfast and the bitter contest in Upper Bann brought differences into focus. Mr Nesbitt will want to build on a good election — but, smarting from the loss of the Rev William McCrea, the DUP will be up for the battle.
4. Is Alasdair McDonnell done?
After a bruising battle in South Belfast, the SDLP leader retained his seat, but with the lowest share of the vote in the Commons. The party kept its three MPs, but saw its overall vote slip again. On the back of a patchy performance in the campaign — including a late cry-off from the BBC leaders’ debate — some may be starting to look at other options. The problem is, are there any?
5. What will the double-jobbers do?
Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell, Danny Kinahan, Alasdair McDonnell and Tom Elliott — and their parties — have decisions to make. Under the new law, they can continue to double-job until the Assembly election. If returned as MLAs, they would get eight days to make their minds up about which house they want to sit in. But if they hedge their bets until then, they leave themselves — and their parties — open to criticism.
6. Any changes on the Stormont benches?
Alliance will surely want to get Naomi Long back on the frontline before long, while Michelle Gildernew (and Conor Murphy) would strengthen Sinn Fein’s line-up. Just who gives way is another question. The DUP’s Jonathan Bell looks certain for the health minister’s post. Looking further ahead, Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit has an Assembly seat in his sights after a strong showing in West Belfast and UKIP will fancy their chances.
7. Will Naomi have the last laugh in East Belfast?
Gavin Robinson savoured his victory — but when the dust settles, unionists have much to ponder in East Belfast. Naomi Long amassed an extra 4,000 votes, further cementing the Alliance position. The UUP and the TUV have to reintroduce themselves to the electorate next year — will the voters they ‘lent’ to the DUP come back?
8. What now for the TUV?
The party hoped to prove that it could fight an election without Jim Allister on the ballot paper — and failed. Their seven candidates pulled in just 16,000 votes and are now facing the challenge of UKIP. Indeed in four constituencies, they were beaten by the Eurosceptic party. Assembly elections are different of course — but could we see quiet discussions between Mr Allister and David McNarry?
9. Will Peter Robinson hang around for it all?
Last September, the First Minister, angrily dismissed claims by his own colleague Edwin Poots that he would step down before the Stormont poll next year. Winning back East Belfast for the DUP was a top personal priority for the DUP leader, 66, and now that goal has been achieved, will he begin to think about an exit strategy? If he does, he will want to give the new leader time to put their stamp on the party before the election.
10. Finally, will anyone at Westminster care?
David Cameron put his shoulder to the wheel (briefly) in the final push for the Stormont House Agreement and was exasperated when it unravelled. Armed with a Conservative majority, he won’t have to rely on the support of DUP or UUP votes — and he will have one or two other things to occupy his time. Like cutting the deficit, containing the SNP and negotiating with Europe. Labour will be picking a new leader — and starting to rebuild.
Belfast Telegraph Digital