The UK Constitutional Law Association blog has asked constitutional lawyers to review the main party manifestos ahead of the May elections, drawing out key constitutional proposals. Below John Morison discusses the constitutional implications of the main political parties in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland often appears as a place apart (perhaps like a political N’Iron Isles sited at the very edge of Westeros, a long way from King’s Landing and the centre of power.) This is no less so at election time. The main parties in Great Britain generally do not organise or stand in Northern Ireland, and often all politics there seem very local. This sense of being apart, even as the election heats up, was illustrated when the television Seven Party Leaders Debate and the Five Opposition Leaders Debate did not feature any of the Northern Ireland parties. (This despite the two main parties there – Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – sending 13 MPs to Westminster at the last election as compared to 6 from the SNP, 3 from Plaid Cmyru, 1 from the Greens and 1 defector to UKIP who were all represented on tv.) Devolution too has naturally moved the focus of interest from Westminster to Stormont. However the psephological intricacies of this election suggests that maybe – just maybe – some of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster MPs could have a key role to play in forming or at least sustaining the next Government in the UK. Which of the Northern Ireland parties would side with which of the main parties in Great Britain? How do their policy aims align? What price might they exact for support? What effect might this have on the wider constitutional landscape?
The parties – and their allegiances
Currently there are four Northern Ireland parties represented in Westminster – the Democratic Unionist Party DUP, Sinn Fein, the Social, Democratic and Labour Party SDLP, and Alliance, alongside two independents. In the Assembly there are a further four parties, the Ulster Unionists UU, the Green Party, the Traditional Unionist Voice TUV, and the United Kingdom Independence Party UKIP. All of these parties, along with a range of smaller parties and independents, are contesting seats in Westminster in a contest where 138 candidates are standing in 18 constituencies. Several of these parties, particularly the major ones with a chance of securing victory, have announced their manifestos with solemn words about how the wider electoral context is not simply an opportunity to make demands for money and other concessions to any GB party struggling to form a government. The manifestos then follow up with a detailed wish list which could, presumably, form the basis for negotiations about either a formal pact or support in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The DUP (which was the fourth largest party in the last parliament) would seem naturally to incline towards the Tories. Much of the DUP Manifesto, and their recent Northern Ireland Plan, contains policies on taxation, defence, immigration and law and order that accords with Conservative views, although there is an emphasis on public services and opposition to the bedroom tax that would chime with Labour. Indeed their Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds, has declared a willingness to negotiate with both Labour or the Conservatives, ruling out only any deal with the SNP. One DUP MP, Ian Paisley, has however gone further suggesting that the party might be open to a confidence and supply arrangement – with either Labour or the Conservatives – in exchange for an extra £1bn to the existing £13bn that Northern Ireland currently receives from Westminster.
At the launch of the Sinn Féin manifesto the party leader Martin McGuinness demanded an extra £1.5bn for Northern Ireland. However it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein might compel any new government in London to grant this. As a consequence of their policy of refusing to accept the legitimacy of British rule in the north of Ireland, Sinn Fein do not take up any of the (currently five) seats they win in the Westminster Parliament. Paradoxically perhaps, at a time when nationalism in Scotland is enthusiastically taking up the opportunity to promote its cause in London, this stance has the result that the major effect of any electoral success by the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland is to potentially lower the threshold required for a majority, or reduce the numbers needed to make a minority government stable. The retention of their current five MPs, or even a possible increase to as many as eight is likely only to assist the Conservatives. This is not a result that most Irish Nationalists would necessarily wish for given not only the historical enmity but also the Sinn Fein stance on welfare cuts. However perhaps Sinn Fein eyes are fixed upon a bigger prize in the Irish general election to be called no later than early next year where a record of simple opposition to any spending cuts could play well to voters there.
The SDLP say they will not be supporting the Conservative Party and admit they have a “very heavy tilt” towards Labour. Alliance do not commit to any party but claim that “values would influence any decision”. UKIP, which is offering 10 candidates across Northern Ireland standing on a special Northern Ireland version of its national party manifesto, claimed at its manifesto launch that it was not preparing for coalition or offering itself as “wannabe kingmakers”.
(From the other side there is little interest expressed in Northern Ireland by the two main parties in Great Britain. Labour manage to give Northern Ireland only nine lines in its 85 page manifesto while the Conservatives offer 200 words in their 80 page manifesto – although a grouping called the NI Conservatives have published their own manifesto.)
Nevertheless the local parties do have their expectations, shopping lists, and red lines. Many of these are naturally focused on bringing as much as possible to Northern Ireland and, in particular, seeking concessions from austerity. Others no doubt are aimed at setting out a stall for an Assembly election that will take place in no more than 12 months’ time. There are however a range of matters that map directly on to bigger constitutional issues. If the Northern Ireland parties were to find themselves in a position to broker a Government in Westminster the views of the local parties on these issues might assume an importance beyond their back yard.
The big issues
There is a fairly sharp divide among the parties on the issue of Europe. The SDLP is traditionally very pro-Europe. At the launch of its manifesto its leader said that a commitment to EU membership was “at the top of our list” when it came to deciding if his party should support a Westminster coalition. In the 32 page Alliance Party manifesto the centre ground party describes itself as “whole-heartedly pro-European” and promises to oppose an in / out referendum, although it does support a referendum on further transfers of power. The Green Party manifesto too is in general support of the European project. Sinn Fein has a policy of “critical engagement” with the EU, acknowledging that Ireland has benefited from funding and support for the peace process. The Sinn Fein manifesto regards the whole debate over Europe as another example of how the British have undermined the interests of the people in the north of Ireland. The manifesto argues for all-Ireland representation at the EU Commission and Council of Ministers, and if Britain has an in / out referendum on EU membership the party will insist on a separate vote in the north of Ireland.
Other parties are less enthusiastic. The Ulster Unionist manifesto calls for review, renegotiation and a referendum. The Traditional Unionist Voice claims that membership of the EU costs the UK £1m per hour and demands an early referendum in which it will campaign to leave. UKIP has a separate UKIP manifesto for Northern Ireland. However this does not differ in substance on the European question from what might be termed the UKIP main manifesto. The NI Conservatives manifesto barely mentions Europe taking the view this issue is covered in the manifesto published in Great Britain. Most significantly perhaps the DUP support the call for a renegotiation and an early referendum. The preponderance of this anti-European feeling in those parties likely to be closest to the power-brokering process has caused some worry. Nick Clegg has drawn attention to the possibility that at a national level there might arise a right wing alliance of DUP, UKIP and the Conservatives, a result he terms “blukip”, where the UK is moved to the right on this issue and, indeed, more generally.
A rights and equality agenda is of course central to the Peace Process and a central part of the architecture of governance in Northern Ireland. There are several parties who support this enthusiastically. Others are concerned that rights have either gone too far or that they mainly address the interests of the nationalist section of the community, and should be re-balanced. All of these views are reflected in the manifestos.
The SDLP would like Ireland to become a “beacon of hope for peace, democracy, human rights and respect”. They re-state their commitment to a rights approach and call for an updating of race equality law and a rights compliant approach to memorializing the past. Alliance too endorse a rights regime compliant with European and international standards but need to be persuaded of the case for a separate Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. Along with Sinn Fein they oppose the adoption of a “conscience clause” which has recently come to the fore in relation to a gay-theme cake. Sinn Fein also call for protection of the rights of Irish speakers, a bill of rights for all citizens and an all-Ireland Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Green Party manifesto refers to the need to “articulate a new civil rights agenda to create a sustainable society of equals” and extends a rights approach across a large range of areas, including a right to well-funded, first class public services.
Among those voters who are sceptical of rights the NI Conservative Party may well appeal to those in Northern Ireland who share its view that there is a “mission creep” whereby human rights law is being extended, often with little regard for the rights of wider society. Its manifesto repeats the desire of the Conservative Party in Great Britain to repeal the current Human Rights Act and replace it with a United Kingdom Bill of Rights. It does however admit the possibility of some “supplementary rights” for Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party manifesto does mention rights but puts this in the context of improving animal welfare, the position of ex-service personnel and victims of the terrorism, and the rights of those who wish to express their culture, including loyal orders and bands. Despite their historical hostility to rights discourses both the DUP manifesto and its Northern Ireland Plan are largely silent on the issue of rights – beyond seeking special legal protection for official displays of the Union Flag and other symbols, and a proposal for protecting a right to assembly in connection with marches and parades.
On this issue too there is a disparity of views which may be significant if deals are being done. Only the TUV is opposed to any further devolution at all. The UKIP NI manifesto has little to say on devolution and refers only the need to have a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who is pro union rather than neutral (while the main UKIP manifesto mentions only the Barnett Formula and its perceived bias in favour of Scotland.) Other parties want further devolution within the context of various broader projects. Alliance support a move towards a federal UK while the Green Party want a UK of devolved regions within a global neighbourhood. The Ulster Unionists maintain that the Union makes sense “politically, economically, socially and culturally”. The DUP require only that the principle of devolution “be respected by Westminster”, although they would like a guaranteed seat at Cabinet for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein meanwhile demand a referendum on Irish unity within the next parliament.
Within these wide aims there are some calls for devolution of further powers. The DUP, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Ulster Unionists all call for control of (or at least concessions on the level) of corporation tax. This is actively opposed by the Green Party. The DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionists want VAT in relation to tourism to be reduced to match that in the Republic of Ireland (with the Ulster Unionists seeking also a reduction to 5% for VAT in the construction industry). The SDLP suggest a Scottish-style commission on devolving further fiscal powers. (Alliance claim to be open to the possibility of devolving yet further powers but say that they “do not believe that the other Executive parties have demonstrated the maturity for these to be devolved at this stage”.) The SDLP also argue for powers in the area of broadcasting, telecommunications and the internet. Moreover they wish to take control over seabed resource rights (in relation particularly to off-shore windfarms and tidal turbines), lottery spending and consumer protection. Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein campaign for control over national insurance and the minimum wage. Sinn Fein goes further, campaigning for control over income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax. Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein all support additional borrowing powers for the Assembly in their manifestos.
Who will they back?
Of course the Northern Ireland parties want to extract the most for Northern Ireland from Westminster – and should not perhaps be blamed for that. Any deal will depend equally on what the other side is prepared to concede and the parties on either side of the Irish sea do not map easily on to each other. But there are some family resemblances, common interests and, indeed, red lines that may not be crossed.
As the politicians and media constantly remind us it is ultimately the role of the electorate in Great Britain to choose who will be the next Prime Minister. This is something that voters in Northern Ireland have traditionally had little to do with. However politics in the UK has changed. Now it is possible that votes may count in a different way. The choices made in various constituencies across the whole of the United Kingdom now may have an increased impact on who gets into Number 10. Northern Ireland has few MPs, and even fewer who could make an impact in the bigger game. Voter turnout has declined to the lowest level in any region in the UK since 1945. However it is now that the permutations in post election arithmetic may just conceivably give an important role to the Northern Ireland electorate and their MPs in deciding who will occupy the Iron Throne in Downing Street. We cannot know which House they might back. But perhaps there are some hints.
John Morison is Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of ConstitutionUK, nor of the London School of Economics. It originally appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Association Blog.