What Northern Ireland's MPs will and won't do in a hung parliament

With the Tory lead narrowing, the 18 seats Great Britain's pollsters ignore could again make or break the government - and up to six could change hands on Thursday.

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With the Conservative lead narrowing not only in YouGov’s MRP model but in every other poll, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn could find themselves in much the same position as Theresa May did on 9 June 2017: needing the support of Northern Irish MPs to govern. 

Much has changed since the last election - not least the Brexit process, and, for that matter, the likely composition of Northern Ireland’s 18-strong Commons cohort. Last time, the DUP and Sinn Féin won 17 seats between them - a record showing at the expense of the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, both of whom were wiped out. Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist, made up the numbers.

LucidTalk, Northern Ireland’s sole pollster, does not forecast a repeat. Nor, in private, do the parties. Hermon has taken the election as her cue to retire, while Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Green Party have forged ad hoc electoral pacts in the three Belfast constituencies held by the DUP, with the express intention of unseating them. 

If LucidTalk’s projections are borne out (it is worth noting that it incorrectly called three seats in 2017), the DUP will remain on 10 seats - losing South Belfast to the SDLP, and gaining North Down. Sinn Féin will fall to six seats - losing Foyle to the SDLP. The two SDLP gains make up the numbers to 18.

Two seats, however, are too close to call under the projection - North Belfast, where DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds faces a concerted challenge from Sinn Féin, and Foyle. East Belfast, where Alliance leader Naomi Long is attempting to unseat the DUP’s Gavin Robinson, is also tight, as is North Down, where her deputy Stephen Farry is in contention. 

Should those seats deviate from the headline projection, the final scores on the doors could see the DUP finish with seven, having lost North, South, and East Belfast. Sinn Féin would pip them with eight, having held Foyle and gained North Belfast - the first time it will have held a plurality of Westminster seats. Alliance would hold two for the first time in its history, with the SDLP on one. 

On a really bad night for the DUP, tactical voting in South Antrim could even deliver Alliance a third seat at their expense. That, however, would require a serious and probably implausibly rapid squeeze on the UUP vote.

The precise composition of the 18 could make or break the next prime minister. Sinn Féin, of course, do not take their seats - and will not do so no matter what happens on Thursday night. The bigger their parliamentary party, the lower the bar any prospective government has to clear. Those that do participate each have distinct red lines, which almost all of the main party leaders have set out to the New Statesman over the course of the campaign.

DUP

Arlene Foster and the DUP have made what they won’t do abundantly clear. They will not support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal unless it no longer imposes a customs border in the Irish Sea. The prime minister has made clear that such an outcome will not be forthcoming, and every Conservative candidate has pledged to support his deal - which he insists is a final offer - as is. Unless Johnson or Dublin budges, a renewal of the confidence and supply agreement seems unlikely, at least formally.

They have also stressed, however, that in no circumstances will they support a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. That would appear to further constrain their options and reduce their leverage. However, in an intriguing appearance on Newsnight in Belfast late last month, Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip at Westminster, stressed that Corbyn would not be leader of the opposition forever. Donaldson - whose influence over the DUP’s Westminster strategy will only increase if Dodds does lose his seat - was also careful not to rule a second referendum in or out. 

Though the DUP leadership stresses that it wants to see the result of the 2016 respected, it is conceivable that, should circumstances change, its mind will too.

UUP

The Ulster Unionists - who have an outside chance in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as well as South Antrim - have an altogether different set of criteria. 

Speaking to the New Statesman in Belfast last month, Steve Aiken, the UUP leader, confirmed that he would not support a Corbyn-led government. Nor, however, would he support either Johnson or his withdrawal agreement. 

“The best option is that we have a hung parliament and we have Ulster Unionists returned to the benches. And we will be able, at that stage, to negotiate whatever way it happens to be that we Remain,” Aiken said. Hinting that his MPs could support the revocation of Article 50, he added: “Let’s not get stuck on the idea that we have to have a second referendum, because the first referendum was an absolute disaster.”

Its other main policy priority would be to legislate for net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. 

SDLP

The SDLP’s behaviour in a hung parliament is likely to be rather more predictable. As a sister party of Labour and avowed Remainers, the moderate nationalists will in no circumstances support a Conservative government. 

Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader and its candidate in Foyle, told the New Statesman in Derry last month: “The first order of business is to try, if possible, to stop Brexit. I know that seems like a lofty ambition, but we don’t know what the numbers game is going to be. We’d be happy to be part of a broad, progressive coalition that’s prepared to do whatever possible to stop Brexit.”

Should a cliff-edge situation arise, however, SDLP MPs could vote for Johnson’s deal. “If it was a choice between that deal and a no-deal, and that choice was very stark and obvious then I would,” Eastwood said.

The climate crisis is also likely to be high on its agenda in a hung parliament, as is welfare reform and investment in public services. Its MPs will not take the Labour whip, though in previous parliaments they have largely followed it.

Alliance

Alliance, meanwhile, has set out only one criterion: it will only support a government that offers a second Brexit referendum.

On several occasions, Naomi Long, the Alliance leader, has told the New Statesman that she does not foresee her party entering into a formalised confidence and supply arrangement or coalition with any party. 

“First and foremost, we want Brexit stopped,” Long told the NS in Belfast last month. “We believe the most democratic way to do that is via a People’s Vote, so we will try and achieve a People’s Vote, and we will do that on a cross-party basis with others who share that ambition.”

Beyond that, her criteria are relatively loose. “What I’ve said consistently is that we’re willing to work with those who are willing to do what’s right by Northern Ireland. So, at every stage I don’t see us forming a coalition with anyone - I don’t see that prospect on the cards. But I have said consistently that if people are doing what is in Northern Ireland’s best interest they will have our support. And where they’re acting not in Northern Ireland’s interest, they won’t.”

Measures to combat climate change, welfare reform and an overhaul of devolution are among Alliance’s top policy priorities for a hung parliament.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.