If either Labour or the Conservatives need to form a “grand coalition” to take power after the election, the parties of Northern Ireland may suddenly find themselves kingmakers.
The Tories would look for support to the DUP, while Labour would hope for the backing of the SDLP. The DUP currently has eight seats, the SDLP three. Small numbers, but vital ones if they would help clinch a majority in the House of Commons.
What happens in Northern Ireland should therefore be of utmost interest and concern to the main Westminster parties. And last week brought a development that may prove significant indeed.
The Ulster Unionists, who currently have no MPs, have proposed an electoral pact with their rivals the DUP.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has suggested the pact could apply in just two seats. But those two seats just happen to be the most marginal constituencies in Northern Ireland. In both cases the pact would be intended to try and stop both seats being won by Sinn Fein.
The first seat is Belfast North. It is Sinn Fein’s top target, and sitting DUP MP Nigel Dodds has a majority of just 2,224:
“The DUP lost East Belfast in 2010,” Mike Nesbitt said this week, “and we certainly don’t want to see the capital city of Northern Ireland without a unionist member of parliament at Westminster after May 2015.”
As such he is proposing the UUP does not field a candidate in Belfast North at the general election and instead encourages its supporters to vote for the DUP.
The second seat in the pact is the most marginal seat in the whole of the UK: Fermanagh & South Tyrone.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won the constituency in 2010 by a majority of just four votes:
Rodney Connor, who came second, had the support of both the DUP and the UUP.
Here, the UUP is proposing the reverse of that in Belfast North: that the DUP does not field a candidate in 2015 and instead encourages its supporters to back the UUP.
In both seats the thinking behind a pact is clear. Such an arrangement would avoid splitting the unionist vote and allow another candidate through the middle.
But it’s a controversial proposal, and one that Nesbitt himself rejected only two years ago.
For the time being it is merely a suggestion and has yet to be formally approved by both the UUP and DUP.
Were it to happen and achieve its desired effect, however, it could lead to a change in the balance of seats in Northern Ireland – a change that may help the Tories in any potential deal to form a new coalition.
For were the UUP to take Fermanagh & South Tyrone, it would increase by one the number of unionist MPs in the House of Commons and therefore – in theory – increase the number of allies the Tories could call upon to help it form a government.
I say in theory, because who knows precisely if and how both the DUP and UUP would enter a coalition with the Conservatives.
But the news of the pact is just the sort of thing that, while appearing of minor importance at the moment, could take on major significance after polling day when the arithmetic of a hung parliament starts becomes clear.