A THORNY “CROWN”?

8 May 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Then, happy low, lie down! Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Shakespeare’s famous summation of the burdens of command in Henry IV will resonate strongly with the leaders of the political parties contesting the Westminster elections up for decision in the next days.

For there could be regicidal consequences for some of the figures who have occupied centrestage in Northern Ireland and UK politics over the past decade or so from what is widely expected to be an indeterminate outcome when the votes are tallied.

Such is the do or die nature of the first-past-the-post voting system which determines the political fortunes of our neighbours that some of the reigning royalty may not even make it through the gruelling gauntlet of public opinion to be allowed the dubious pleasure of falling on their swords.

Most at risk of this fate would appear to be Nick Clegg, the leader of junior coalition partner the Liberal Democrats, whose Sheffield Halam seat is expected to come under severe threat from Labour. Mr Clegg’s fate and that of his party will come under particular scrutiny from their Labour equivalents in our own coalition for auguries of their destiny when a new Irish government is elected sometime in the coming year.

The sooth is unlikely to be reassuring. Even if Mr Clegg survives – and he would seem reliant on Conservative supporters embracing the alien concept of tactical voting in order to do so – he will probably find himself at the head of a greatly diminished fiefdom of seats and considerably disempowered as a potential player in the next British government. This would render Mr Clegg’s continuation as party leader untenable and confer the same harsh judgement on the outgoing Government’s junior partner that has been passed on parties to have occupied that role in this country in recent times – sleepless nights for our own Labour TDs seem assured.

Electoral politics is often only coincidentally a meritocracy. The coalition experiment conducted in the UK over the term of the last government brought stability to a country in difficult economic circumstances and functioned tolerably well, Mr Clegg and Conservative leader David Cameron achieving a more compatible harmony than was sometimes evident when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were vying for supremacy in previous single-party Labour administrations.

Yet sharing power has corroded rather than enhanced the Lib Dem credentials in the eyes of their supporters and the voting public, their association with unpopular decisions proving adhesive at the same time as their amelioration of the more extreme Tory instincts turned invisible. A weakened party without Mr Clegg at the helm would probably eschew a role in government even if one could be devised for them, and would scramble for haven back towards the left of the British political centre and happily nurse its wounded body back to health on the opposition benches.

It as much a sobering experience for politics in this country as in our nearest neighbour to reflect on the fate of parties that deign to enter government in a subsidiary role. The disincentive to follow suit is considerable, and the consequences for stability of future administrations all too clear.

Thus the UK elections exercise more than an academic fascination for this country – the likely struggles to form a legitimate and lasting government that will unfold in the coming days and weeks could presage the machinations that will follow our own imminent General Election.

Just as Mr Kenny and perhaps Mr Martin or Mr Adams in this country will find in the event of a Labour eclipse, the search by Mr Cameron and British Labour leader Ed Miliband for eligible suitors will take them into some strange avenues if the Lib Dems go back on the shelf for a time.

Mr Miliband, switching between formal statesman attire and smart man of the people casual in an often agonized attempt to convince as prime minister material, has his own image problem – and the prospect of having to forge a rainbow alliance from the allsorts mix of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and even the SDLP in order to keep a minority Government ship afloat.

Mr Cameron may have to rely upon support from the Northern Unionist parties and the United Kingdom Independence Party if he is to extend his tenure in No 10 – and there are those who would see direful implications in that for the future trend of the peace process and our trading relations with the UK, the latter being of particular concern if our nearest neighbour and significant trading partner were to revise the nature of its participation in the European Union.

It would seem unlikely, however, that either peace or prosperity in this country would be significantly derailed by such an alliance, which would prop up rather than permeate the policies of a Conservative-dominant government in which the more extreme instincts of Unionist and UKIP opinion would be effectively stifled.

The precedent such an alignment might set for this country, given its UKIP involvement, would be a different but equally worrying one – the creation of a political environment where immigration and the free movement of peoples between European States becomes a live and divisive issue.

The saddest aspect of the central role that the immigration issue has played in the UK election campaign is not the canards and intolerant pronouncements that have been bandied around all too freely and without challenge – it is that little or no meaningful attention has been given to addressing the appalling migrant crisis ongoing in the Mediterranean in terms that would see some of the terrible suffering alleviated. This is the immigration issue all humane governments and countries, including our own, should be placing on top of their agendas.

Given that the parties who come to predominant power there may well have a determining say in the shape of the next Westminster administration, there is more widespread attention than usual being given to the Northern Ireland elections – and plenty of more domestic and parochial reasons, too, why such as Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson and SDLP front man Alasdair McDonnell may find their crown shifting a little uncomfortably on their heads.

Could either or both be kingmakers in the short-term only to be deposed themselves in the longer term? That intriguing consideration aside, the determination of the 18 northern constituencies is unlikely to see much shift in the current balance of seats between the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin, whose continuing abstentionist policy may come under review should the Northern Ireland influence in this election assume significance.

The voracious Irish appetite for politics should ensure that the course of the Westminster elections is followed closely in this country over the days ahead – but there could also be instructive, and cautionary, lessons for our own political future to be gleaned from the outcome.

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