Alex Kane: Why a tedious election could still deliver a fascinating result
DUP and SDLP are both hoping for a hung Parliament, the third in a row, to maximise their potential leverage at Westminster, writes Alex Kane
For what had been billed as a once-in-a-generation election, I have to say that I have been underwhelmed by it all. Where were the fireworks? Where were the brutal encounters in the leadership debates? Where was that sense of excitement you're supposed to feel when epic, history-making, country-changing, new-future-shaping decisions have to be made?
Where were the political giants waiting to lead us? Where were the speeches we'll remember for the rest of our lives? Where were the 'moments' that brought us to a standstill and made us rethink long-held beliefs and voting habits?
Where were the water-cooler conversations in work places or in the pub as we discussed what were supposed to be the big, set-piece political exchanges between journalists and would-be Prime Ministers? Where was that frisson of being at the epicentre of something really important?
Indeed, there have been times, particularly during the past two weeks, when all I sensed was boredom.
The John Lewis Christmas commercial, I'm A Celebrity... and Strictly all seemed to be getting more traction than whether or not the UK leaves the EU on January 31. And I don't think the boredom has anything to do with the fact that people have no interest in politics because they're preoccupied with Christmas.
I think it's more to do with a distrust in politicians generally, a lack of confidence in political institutions and a feeling that millions of people have that the election probably won't resolve the ongoing impasse or end the Brexit "crisis".
None of this means that the result won't be interesting. In 1992 the general feeling was that 13 years of Conservative Governments (the Thatcher era) would come to an end; yet John Major won with a majority of 21 and clung on for the next five years. In 2015 it was reckoned that David Cameron would require Lib-Dem support again, yet he won with a small majority.
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In 2017 Theresa May was originally being tipped to return with an increased, comfortable majority, but ended with a minority administration propped up by the DUP. The polls are fluctuating again in the past few days, so anything seems possible - including the third hung Parliament in a decade.
At least two of the five main parties contesting elections in Northern Ireland will be hoping for a hung Parliament.
The SDLP, which will almost certainly win South Belfast (and stands a very good chance of picking up a second seat in Foyle) could have a crucial role to play if Jeremy Corbyn is in a position to form a minority administration.
The party supports a second referendum, as does Corbyn, so I can't imagine they'd play hardball with him when it comes to a quid pro quo for their support.
Winning two seats, accompanied by the likelihood of a second referendum, would be like another Christmas for Colum Eastwood.
At this point, even winning a seat would be an important fillip for the party.
The DUP - although it will never say so out loud - is praying for a hung Parliament in which its votes would be required by either Johnson or Corbyn.
The party says that it won't "hand the keys of Number 10" to Jeremy Corbyn, but that doesn't mean it will stop somebody else handing the keys to him. The only thing that matters to the DUP right now is finding a way of killing off Boris Johnson's border in the Irish Sea: and if the only way of doing that is by putting Corbyn into Number 10 (and he has promised a new deal and second referendum) then the DUP will make sure he moves in.
The nightmare outcome for the DUP isn't, I think, likely; but nor is it impossible.
It comes in three parts: Johnson returns with a thumping majority and pushes ahead - within weeks - with his present withdrawal agreement; the party loses South Belfast, North Belfast, South Antrim and doesn't win North Down, bringing it down to seven seats (meaning that, for the first time ever, a majority of MPs returned from NI are not unionist); and the party's overall vote falls significantly, while the UUP's rises. As I say, I don't think this is a likely outcome, but only a fool would at this point dismiss the possibility.
Ironically, the DUP could just as easily win 10 seats, increase its overall vote since 2017 and yet return to a House of Commons in which Boris Johnson has a majority and no need for their support.
That would also be a nightmare outcome for the party. So, as I say, the best result for the DUP is a hung Parliament: so finely hung, in fact, that both Johnson and Corbyn would look to the party for support.
It has been a difficult election for the UUP. Its new leader Steve Aiken got off to a shaky start with his promise to fight all 18 seats and then made a bit of a dog's dinner over the North Down selection. There is an outside chance of Danny Kinahan sneaking through in South Antrim (although the latest LucidTalk poll puts that chance at just 18%) and Tom Elliott in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (28%), but those look like slim pickings.
So, to offset that, the party needs to up its voting figures and close the 200,000 gap between it and the DUP in 2017.
Failure to do so risks lame-duck status for Aiken and reduces the chance of further success in a possible Assembly election in early 2020.
Sinn Fein is reasonably confident in both North Belfast and Foyle and has built its campaign around a canny combination of Brexit and an early border poll, which is why it is happy enough to see both the SDLP and Alliance win South Belfast and North Down if it results in eight DUP to 10 non-unionists and another political/psychological blow to unionism (following the loss of the Assembly majority in 2017 and the second unionist MEP a few months ago).
On the other hand, if it loses Foyle and North Belfast and doesn't add significantly to its overall vote, there will be the sort of questions which accompanied the party's council and Euro results in the South back in May.
Maybe the biggest test of all though is for Alliance. It has taken a risk by not joining the Remain pact and could also take a hit if unionists (DUP and UUP) circle the wagons in an anti-Johnson protest. It seems unlikely it can repeat its performance in the Euro elections; so its priority must be to ensure it doesn't slip back to the days of its single-digit performance (7.9%) in 2017.
That's a bigger challenge than it looks on paper.