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31 May 2017updated 01 Jun 2017 9:39am

It’s time to start paying attention to Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs

Most election coverage lumps them together as an awkward collective. But as the polls narrow, we need to look at the specifics.

By Patrick Maguire

YouGov’s shock Westminster projection, which suggests the Conservatives are on course to lose their overall majority, could well be proved wrong yet. But the pollster can bank on one of its predictions coming true whatever happens: the electors of Northern Ireland, as they have at every election since 1997, will return 18 MPs.

No major pollster will tell you any more than that. Tempting though it is to chalk this up solely to mainland indifference to anything that happens in Northern Ireland, the truth is more prosaic. With the exception of the dependable LucidTalk of Belfast, none of the polling houses conduct surveys in Northern Ireland. “Northern Ireland is obviously only 3 per cent of the total population,” ICM’s Martin Boon told me. “And with a different party set, there’s just too many problems for so little additional knowledge”.

So in the absence of specific polling, the composition of those 18 MPs attracts very little attention. But they are not an indeterminate blob. The four Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats, which sets a lower bar for any party seeking an overall majority. There are significant ideological divides between the three parties that do take seats. 

Still, the lack of focus on the Northern Irish cohort’s exact complexion wasn’t, until recently, all that perverse. Devolution means their roles are relatively unique. Operationally, they have more in common with one another than with their ideological bedfellows from the rest of the UK. And most significantly, a Conservative majority of the kind predicted at the start of the general election campaign would eliminate the government’s reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party’s eight MPs, something which even Arlene Foster has implicitly acknowledged.

Foster’s party was badly bruised by Sinn Fein in March’s snap assembly election. But talk of a really drastic realignment this time is – to put it charitably – a little misguided. The pollsters’ word isn’t gospel, but LucidTalk project that just one seat – the Ulster Unionist Party-held hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone – will change hands next week.

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All of this reflects a truth acknowledged, at least privately, by many Northern Irish politicians – that the province’s MPs are unlikely to matter that much to the machinations of a Tory government with a huge majority. Compare this with 2015, when, expecting a hung parliament, the Westminster press pack paid close and sustained attention to the putative coalition demands of the DUP and SDLP. The lack of attention today is less a case of systemic ignorance than it is of Northern Irish MPs not having much of a bearing on the headline result.

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But with the polls narrowing, the Tories could be on course for a majority of under 50 seats. At that point, the Northern Irish MPs – particularly the unionists – will really begin to matter to the narrative again. 

The DUP could, on a really good night, increase its representation from eight to 10 with victories in South Antrim and South Belfast. On a bad night, it might lose Belfast East to the cross-community Alliance and fall to seven (though this looks rather less likely). But regardless of the result, its MPs will provide May – of whom they are an enormous fan – with valuable insulation against the unpredictable whims of her backbenchers.

Nobody drives a commons bargain like the DUP, and in the last parliament, this sort of leverage proved useful in debates over Troubles legacy prosecutions. Should Stormont remain mothballed and the slow return to direct rule continue, the DUP – plus one or two Ulster Unionists – could again wield outsized influence over the tone and direction of government policy on Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster’s adroit decision to cast the election as a de facto referendum on Northern Ireland’s place on the union could well pay off. 

The results could also have unforeseen and abiding consequences for the nationalist community. Should the pro-EU SDLP lose one or more seats to the DUP and Sinn Féin – a scenario that most informed observers agree is unlikely, but not impossible – then the 56 per cent of Northern Irish electors who voted remain could end up underepresented in Brexit debates. The DUP are devout leavers, while Sinn Féin, of course, won’t be in the room.

Even allowing for the efforts of thoughtful Foyle MP and former deputy first minister Mark Durkan (who forced David Davis to admit that Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU through unification with the South), any lopsided composition of the Northern Irish cohort in favour of Leave could well distort the conversation around Brexit – and deprive voters of valuable parliamentary scrutiny – as negotiations begin in earnest.

As YouGov’s numbers stand, then the combined strength of the Northern Irish unionists – the eight DUP MPs and two UUP MPs – could bring May to within two seats of a majority. Should the polling be borne out, then parliamentary arithmetic will be much more complicated than Northern Ireland = 18.