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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK

Devolution: Dividend or disaster at Westminster?

BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Mark Simpson looks at how devolution will change the complexion of the Westminster campaign.

The election will provide a tricky juggling act for six Stormont ministers.

They will be faced with the task of running a government department while running a personal election campaign at the same time.

And the long list of Westminster candidates includes the two men in charge of devolution in Northern Ireland: First Minister David Trimble and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon.

They may be devolutionists, but the lure of Westminster is still hard to resist.


" Most parties are capitalising on the increased profile of their Assembly members by running some of them in the Westminster election too "

And the same goes for Assembly members.

More than 40 have been selected to run for Parliament, as they aim to double the number of seats which they hold.

So is this just political greed? Or is it a sign of the fragility of the Stormont Assembly? Probably, a little bit of both.

Greed is perhaps too strong a term - "ambition" might be kinder.

Parties capitalising

There is no doubt that all four of Northern Ireland's main political parties are not short on ambition, and winning the highest number of seats in the Commons - plus recording the largest slice of the overall vote - is their goal.

And to that end, most parties are capitalising on the increased profile of their Assembly members by running some of them in the Westminster election too

But the other factor in all this cannot be ignored - the lack of security at Stormont.

The devolved administration has already collapsed once (February 2000 to May 2000) and there is no guarantee that it will not fall again.

It could even be the election itself which forces another collapse.

Picture this: the Ulster Unionist Party loses four of its nine seats, including David Trimble's Upper Bann constituency; Mr Trimble resigns as party leader and vacates his position as first minister; the Assembly falls.

Fatal damage

That is the Ulster Unionist nightmare, and the DUP dream.

Ian Paisley's party is hoping to use the election to inflict fatal damage on David Trimble's leadership.

The DUP believe that victory in last year's South Antrim by-election (when the Reverend William McCrea won what was previously a safe UUP seat) has started a band-wagon which will roll over Mr Trimble and his parliamentary colleagues.

The election therefore could have a major impact on devolution.

But it is also worth pointing out that devolution is a major electoral issue in itself.

And this is where pro-Agreement Ulster Unionists believe they will "score" against the DUP.

Polling day

Most Northern Ireland people seem to like devolution, and prefer to hear a local minister talking about local issues, rather than a Tory or Labour minister.

David Trimble believes his party will receive the credit for this, when polling day arrives.

Hence the latest UUP posters to appear on billboards around Belfast contain a picture of Stormont with the slogan - "Ulster Unionism Delivering".


" Most Northern Ireland people seem to like devolution, and prefer to hear a local minister talking about local issues "
It is, however, not just Ulster Unionists who will be hoping for a "devolution dividend" from the ballot box.

Three SDLP ministers (Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers and Sean Farren) are running in the election as well as one Sinn Fein minister (Martin McGuinness), and one DUP minister (Gregory Campbel).

Parochial affairs

Of the 18 MPs in the outgoing parliament, 11 were Assembly members.

Only one of them is not seeking re-election, Ulster Unionist John Taylor (Strangford).

A quick look at the ballot papers in the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies shows that there is at least one Assembly member running in each area.

So will they be campaigning merely on Westminster issues? No chance.


" Would a long-standing unionist voter switch his allegiance to Sinn Fein because he prefers their policy on post-primary school education? "

Elections in Northern Ireland have always been very parochial affairs, and the latest one is no different.

The age-old battle between unionists and nationalists will be re-fought, as will the internal battles within unionism and nationalism (UUP v DUP, and SDLP v Sinn Fein).

However, more attention than ever before will be paid to what the parties' manifestos have to say about social and economic issues.

Juggling act

After all, local parties are now in charge of issues like health, education and the environment.

But the question remains - would a long-standing unionist voter switch his allegiance to Sinn Fein because he prefers their policy on post-primary school education?

It would be a surprise if he did, to say the least.

But politics in Northern Ireland has changed.

The power-sharing executive has brought a new focus on issues other than the "border" politics.

One of the quirks of the current situation is that those who share power are now involved in an election fight against each other.

And the result of that fight, could determine the future of devolution.

Never mind the ministerial juggling act, devolution itself is now walking a political tight-rope.



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