Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: NI parties should turn attention to Stormont as Westminster influence looks set to diminish

Northern Ireland- 27th February 2014 Mandatory Credit - Photo Jonathan Porter/Presseye.
Northern Ireland- 27th February 2014 Mandatory Credit - Photo Jonathan Porter/Presseye.

By Jon Tonge

It is the election that continues to astound. This week saw Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn win the 'Most Money Ever Found on an Interview Chair' award as he unearthed a cool £58bn during his grilling by Andrew Neil.

Boris Johnson fled from the prospect of a Neil interrogation. How could the Prime Minister possibly cope with that Carruthers chap on BBC Northern Ireland?

Meanwhile a leaflet arrived hailing Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson as my "next Prime Minister". I've kept it as a souvenir tribute to this remarkable feat, given she is apparently going to achieve this with just 13 MPs. Gosh. If only Nigel Dodds could extend the DUP's Westminster team into West Belfast and a couple of other constituencies he would be in line for the top job.

Meanwhile, the pro-Brexit DUP continued its anti-Brexit campaigning.

BBC Newsnight arrived in Belfast to tick the Northern Ireland election coverage box but Emily Maitlis could find only consensus across all parties that a Boris Brexit was terrible.

Sinn Fein repeated how sending MPs to Westminster was a waste of time, whilst urging its supporters in South Belfast to ensure this prize befalls the SDLP's Claire Hanna.

The DUP launched its manifesto. It is called "Let's Get the UK Moving Again". To do this, the party demands the scrapping of the HS2 rail programme and wants a feasibility study for the Scotland to Northern Ireland bridge.

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Imagine a Prime Minister saying to the 35m (and rising) passengers struggling each year onto overcrowded West Coast mainline trains: "The bad news? We're scrapping the HS2 scheme which might have addressed your capacity issues. The good news? We're looking at a bridge from Argyll to Antrim instead."

Unsurprisingly, Brexit is tucked away in the manifesto's 28 pages, meriting just over half of page 15.

But the DUP manifesto rightly trumpets the extra cash the party obtained for Northern Ireland. It was indeed big money. Ask the envious devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

And it's not impossible that the DUP might still be in the game come December 13. This week's YouGov MRP poll showing a 68 seat Conservative majority deserves respect given the sample size and 2017 success. Labour officials are privately very worried in northern England. But they were at the last election and 68 still looks very much on the large size of victory.

Beyond its general election manifesto, the DUP has offered some serious proposals for the restoration of the Assembly.

These include abolishing or reducing petitions of concern and scrapping community designations for MLAs. Such proposals are almost identical to those offered by Alliance in its election manifesto.

Buoyed by recent election successes, Alliance state that there should be fresh Assembly elections if an Executive cannot be formed.

Meanwhile the party wants the Single Transferable Vote for Westminster elections and votes for 16-year-olds. Given the apparent cross-party agreement on Stormont reforms, where lie the stumbling blocks to restoration?

Alliance wants an external mediator. I suspect that one festive season lost to Northern Ireland issues was enough for Richard Haass but it is a reasonable idea.

It might be opposed by unionist parties though. Alliance also proposes that Westminster legislates on an Irish Language Act. That would be opposed by unionists, for sure, even if the British government promised this way back in 2006.

Whilst not underestimating the continuing difficulties of conflict legacy issues and Brexit, the divisions over an Irish Language Act might be the one big boulder left on the devolutionary road.

Via Westminster legislation, same-sex marriage has been introduced. On abortion, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald indicated on the BBC's The View programme on Thursday that she did not support the UK's abortion time limit and seeks alignment with the rest of the island at 12 weeks.

If the Executive cannot be restored via the DUP and Sinn Fein, Alliance wants a voluntary coalition - although sidelining a big chunk of the electorate will clearly be problematic.

Assuming most Northern Irish MPs won't be having much say at Westminster - the DUP marginalised, Sinn Fein absent and "others" numerically tiny - Assembly restoration ought to matter more than it has so far in the campaign.

We need to move from lurid posters, melting ice sculptures in TV studios and late-night calls of nature. With postal voting already underway, this crucial election is now at a decisive stage. In less than a fortnight it will all be over. I will miss it.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of the 2010, 2015 and 2017 ESRC Northern Ireland election studies

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