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Vote 2010: policy guide - Northern Ireland

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 06 April 2010

The contest in Northern Ireland takes place against a backdrop of sexual and financial scandals - but the results could be crucial to the peace process, writes Eamonn Mallie.

Stormont - the general election results in N Ireland will be closely watched (Getty)

The contest in Northern Ireland will be keenly watched - partly because it takes place against a backdrop of sexual and financial scandals and partly because the results could be crucial to the peace process.

Iris Robinson, who mesmerised the world following her affair with a teenager, has quit politics and her seat is up for grabs.

There will be much interest in whether her private life will lead the mainly Protestant voters of her Strangford constituency to punish her Democratic Unionist Party at the  polls. Her former DUP colleague Jim Shannon is being challenged for the seat by Conservative/Unionist candidate and former UTV presenter Mike Nesbitt.

It will be even more interesting to see whether Protestant voters punish Iris's husband Peter. As DUP leader and Northern Ireland's first minister he is a key figure in the peace process.

Focus on parliamentary expenses, which earned the Robinsons the nickname "Swish Family Robinson", was adjudged to have cost the party votes in the European election.

At one point Mr Robinson looked like a goner in the faced of unease within his party, but he made it through the Hillsborough negotiations which produced agreement on the important issue of transferring police and justice powers from London to Belfast.

That bought him time, but the election brings fresh challenges. His own seat of East Belfast looks safe, but a couple of other losses could place him back in jeopardy.

Nine of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats are held by the DUP. The Ulster Unionist party, once the largest party, is reduced to just one and has joined forces with the Conservatives to revive its fortunes.

Nationalists hold eight seats. Five are in the hands of Sinn Fein, including two held by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The other three are held by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, which for years was headed by Nobel laureate John Hume but has recently elected a relative unknown, Margaret Ritchie, as its new leader.

Northern Ireland, being unlike any other place, produces its oddities. Ms Ritchie, for example, will be contesting South Down where her main rival will be Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane. The two cooperate together in the Belfast assembly, since both are members of its power-sharing executive.

The chances are that there will not be many changes - if any - within the nationalist bloc of eight seats. Sinn Fein has increased its support over recent contests but in Westminster terms the SDLP has fought a dogged rearguard action.

Elements within unionism would dearly love to see unity - a euphemism for a sectarian headcount - to stop Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew and the SDLP's Dr Alasdair Mc Donnell regaining Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast respectively as nationalists.

This is an anathema to David Cameron who wants to "lift the politics of Northern Ireland on to the national stage instead of being dragged down into the gutter of sectarianism."

Even if one or two seats change hands the fundamental balance within nationalism will remain the same.

In the Assembly Sinn Fein outnumbers the SDLP by 28 seats to 16, which is why Martin Mc Guinness is Deputy First Minister.

Recent months have seen newspaper articles focussing on Gerry Adams, with allegations that he should have reacted more vigorously years ago when he learnt of sexual abuse within his own family. Although the issue received much publicity there are no obvious signs that it will impact significantly on the Sinn Fein vote.

It is within unionism that the critical battles should take place, and where Peter Robinson is hoping to hold on to the DUP's nine seats. Many of his voters, who include Protestant fundamentalists, clearly take a dim view of his wife's escapades but sympathise with him in his plight.

The key contest within unionism will be in North Antrim, a constituency with huge symbolic importance. It was here in 1970 that a brash hardliner took on mainstream unionism, defeated it and burst on to the parliamentary scene.

That was the Rev Ian Paisley, who in those days denounced any moves towards moderation. Now standing down, he has lined up his son, Ian Paisley Junior, to replace him.

Today another hardliner is attempting to seize the seat while denouncing the moderate Paisleyism of recent times as a sell-out. This is Jim Allister, a former DUP member who has set up the Traditional Unionist Voice to oppose the current political settlement.

The TUV has not attracted much political talent but Allister, a QC, is articulate and skilled at denouncing DUP changes of policy as unprincipled reversals.

This Paisley-Allister contest is expected to be especially heated, given the personalities involved and the issues at stake. A DUP victory would keep the Paisley dynasty alive. Victory for Allister would provide him with a platform to keep up his attacks on the DUP and the peace process and would be a savage blow for Peter Robinson.

Elsewhere, the Ulster Unionists have combined with the Tories to form an alliance with the unwieldy title of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.

This had an untidy start with the resignations of some potential candidates and a public disagreement between the unionists, who opposed policing devolution, and David Cameron, who strongly supported it.

The alliance will hope to take Iris Robinson's seat, where it is running local TV presenter Mike Nesbitt, and will try to hold on to North Down, Northern Ireland's most prosperous constituency. Situated by the seaside, it is said to be divided into haves and have-yachts.

Things there are complicated by the fact that the sitting member, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is Labour-minded, and has made it clear she wants nothing to do with the Conservatives. The DUP have no plans to oppose the wife of the former Chief Constable of Northern Ireland Jack Hermon.

Peter Robinson will hope he retains enough seats to fend off any party push against him and that, in the event of a hung parliament, he will command a bloc big enough to attract the interest of either Gordon Brown or David Cameron.

Unionist MPs have in the past made deals with both Labour and the Conservatives when both were short of votes in the Commons. Mr Robinson would love to be in that position again.

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