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May's election call spells uncertainty from Northern Ireland perspective

Editor's Viewpoint

Theresa May has seized the day by calling a general election, seeing it as an opportunity to strengthen her hand over Brexit by increasing her majority in the House of Commons and removing the threat from her own backbenchers. Labour is in disarray and anything less than a resounding Conservative victory would be an even bigger shock than the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU.

In those narrow terms - and certainly only Brexit seems to feature on the Prime Minister's radar - she may well achieve her aim of guaranteeing certainty and stability in the years ahead, but in Northern Ireland, and possibly Scotland, she will have exactly the opposite effect.

The only party on this side of the Irish Sea really cheering at her announcement is Sinn Fein which will see the June 8 poll as an opportunity to flex its new found election muscle following last month's Assembly vote.

Sinn Fein will undoubtedly use the General Election as a re-run of the arguments against Brexit and will hope that its hard work on the ground on voter registration will keep it neck and neck with the DUP even if there is a unionist pact and even if the pro-union electorate comes out in force after its scare last month.

For the DUP it is a chance to regroup and get away from the travails of RHI and other contentious Stormont issues. But it could be vulnerable in a couple of seats, notably North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone where Sinn Fein can be expected to throw huge resources into the campaigns.

If Arlene Foster can come out of the election still with eight MPs she will be mightily relieved, but even then her party will have lost whatever influence it had at Westminster as surely the government will not need to count on DUP support during the next Parliament.

For the middle ground here the election could not have come at a worse time. The SDLP did remarkably well to hold onto its Assembly seats last month but the straight past the post nature of this election will not work in its favour. It is a similar case with the UUP unless it can manufacture another pact with the DUP and this is a baptism of fire that new leader Robin Swann could have done without until he had an opportunity to devise some strategy for the way forward for his party.

This will also be a serious test for Alliance, which might have entertained hopes of regaining East Belfast following a good showing at the Assembly elections.

But the June 8 poll will be viewed by many as a trial of strength between the DUP and Sinn Fein and that invariably spells trouble for the middle ground of politics here. History tells us that in such fights the extremes win as tribal politics continue to rule.

So where does all this leave the talks to restore devolution. It is hard to see Sinn Fein having any real interest in compromise with the DUP. Instead the tension between the parties is likely to be ratcheted up another notch. It leaves the Secretary of State with a continuing dilemma of whether to wait in hope that talks will bear fruit or opt for direct rule.

Whatever his decision it is unlikely that Sinn Fein and the DUP will be any better disposed to each other after the general election than they are now and the other parties are likely to wield even less influence if they fare badly at the polls.

Mr Brokenshire has few if any levers at his disposal to persuade the parties towards agreement and the only certainty that the election will gain here is more uncertainty.

Belfast Telegraph

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