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If only our MPs could learn to talk with Parnell’s ghost

Here's the maths: if the Lib-Con pact doesn't work out, the Lib-Lab pact only comes to 315 seats - 11 seats short of a majority. Of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland, 13 are currently available to offer a Lib-Lab coalition, bringing the magic number to 328 - a majority of two.

If Sinn Fein was to end its policy of abstentionism from Westminster, that number would rise to 333 - a slightly more comfortable number for a government trying to get things done. And where would that put Northern Ireland? At the centre of government in London.

Not since Charles Stewart Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power with successive British governments in the 1880s would Irish politicians - albeit of the strictly Northern Irish variety - have such swing at Westminster.

Yes, I know, political historians out there might cite Frank Maguire's role in collapsing the Callaghan government in 1979, or Jim Molyneaux's support for John Major. But none of that comes close to actually sitting down and helping to form the government from the off the way Parnell did.

And is it ridiculous to think that the SDLP, the DUP and the Alliance party couldn't co-operate to allow this to happen? And if they could, would Sylvia Hermon find it so difficult to fall in behind them? Surely not.

Those three parties share seats at the Executive table in Northern Ireland, so, assuming they have the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland at heart, and I believe they have, why not co-operate on the Westminster stage as well.

Just think about the message it would send: our politicians can rise above their local differences and work together on arguably the most important political stage. It happened in the European parliament for years when Paisley, Nicholson and Hume were effective - often joint - advocates for Northern Ireland. So why not Westminster?

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Well, one problem I foresee is not Naomi Long, Margaret Ritchie and Nigel Dodds' inability to work together, but rather the Liberal Democrats and Labour being cautious about allowing one region to have disproportionate influence over the UK Government. To me, that would only arise if we got the negotiations wrong and asked for too much.

In business, you try not to over-reach and scupper a deal. Instead, you create terms that allows advantages for both sides and creates an incentive for the parties involved to agree. Likewise in this case, the prize for the much larger partner in this deal, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, is the ability to govern. The prize for the DUP, SDLP and Alliance is a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland.

And there would be other political spin-offs for some of the parties also. For instance, within nationalism it would be another way for the SDLP to demonstrate how its participation at Westminster is of greater benefit to the voters than Sinn Fein's non-participation, though surely that is another republican sacred cow that needs to be killed off soon.

It's only 30 years ago that Sinn Fein decided to stand in elections here. They now sit in government with parties such as the DUP which is much more ideologically wedded to keeping Northern Ireland in the UK than the Liberal Democrats and Labour are - so, why wouldn't Sinn Fein go to Westminster?

However, assuming that Sinn Fein isn't ready for that jump yet, we still have enough seats to get a Lib-Lab coalition into working-majority territory. And even if the Lib-Con deal works, then surely in this day and age, and with the new, progressive people that we're now sending to Westminster, particularly Naomi Long, why can't we expect the Northern Ireland parties to work more coherently together?

Back in the 1880s, Parnell brought Catholic and Protestant representatives together in the Irish Parliamentary Party, essentially to wield power at Westminster.

The hung Parliament of this era creates a new opportunity for people from this side of the Irish Sea once again.

Paul McErlean is managing director of MCE Public Relations

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