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Why David Cameron visited Northern Ireland

The Conservative leader diverted from a hectic campaign schedule to speak to supporters across the Irish Sea.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron is pictured on a private plane on the way to Belfast, Northern Ireland on May 4, 2010. (Carl de Souza/Pool/Reuters)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland ─ British Conservative leader David Cameron visited Northern Ireland Tuesday, but people here are scratching their heads and asking, why did he bother?

With the United Kingdom's general election two days away, what good reason could a British party leader have for wasting most of the day crossing the Irish sea — on a flight delayed by volcanic ash — to address a small gathering in a County Down hotel? Northern Ireland is a semi-detached part of the U.K., with elections usually a head count for sectarian candidates for home-grown parties, representing unionist (Protestant) or nationalist (Catholic) voters.

Cameron ostensibly came because the Conservatives are affiliated with the minuscule Ulster Unionist Party, which according to a poll in the Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday has only an outside chance of taking one of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in Thursday’s poll. But the real reason for his visit was to indirectly woo Northern Ireland’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with which Cameron has no links, but which is likely to win 10 or 11 seats. In the event of a hung parliament at Westminster, this grouping could be crucial in giving him the support to form a government.

British election posters
Election posters adorn a lightpole in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
(Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

A Conservative-DUP alliance was put at risk when Cameron told a BBC interviewer in April that he would cut back the bloated bureaucracy in Northern Ireland (and northeast England). The statement caused anger in Northern Ireland and Cameron visited in part to undo the damage.

“There is no way Northern Ireland will be singled out over and above any other part of the U.K.,” Cameron promised his supporters at the La Mon Hotel. “We will continue to fund Northern Ireland according to its needs, and we will tackle the deficit while protecting the essential frontline public services that we all rely on.”

Voters are by and large skeptical. Despite their sectarian differences, all the Northern Ireland parties have a common program: to oppose the huge public spending cuts that will be inevitable when any new British government tackles a budget deficit that could exceed 200 billion pounds ($303 billion) this year. But by coming to Northern Ireland, Cameron scored a point over his main rivals, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

“We are showing that we are the party of the union, the party of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England — with candidates standing in every part of the United Kingdom,” Cameron said. “Nobody else can say that. Not Labour. Not the Liberal Democrats.”