Why David Cameron visited Northern Ireland

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.”

The main party leaders in Northern Ireland will win reelection, according to veteran election observer Dan Keenan of the Irish Times.

“You can put your shirt on Gerry Adams getting re-elected in West Belfast,” he said, referring to the leader of the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein. Peter Robinson should also hold on to his East Belfast seat, “though he is out knocking doors for the first time in recent elections.”

Robinson, leader of the DUP, could normally expect a big majority but he was severely embarrassed in January when it emerged his wife Iris, a born-again Christian, had an affair with a 19-year-old man, and police are now investigating her financial affairs. She is currently in London for psychiatric treatment, while her husband has been shoring up his political credibility at home.

A Belfast Telegraph poll indicated that the DUP would get 26 percent of the vote and Sinn Fein 25 percent, similar to recent elections. Indeed, before Cameron arrived the general election here was dull and boring, which is good news for those who remember when polls meant bombs and street violence.

The police are still wary of attacks from dissident republicans on polling day. Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie said, “From February of last year the threat has been raised to the level of severe, and from February of this year that threat has worsened.” Earlier this month dissidents exploded a car bomb outside a British Army base in Holywood, County Down where MI5 (the counter-intelligence and security service) has its headquarters.

Previous elections have been overshadowed by the question of whether Northern Ireland’s future lay with the U.K. or the Irish Republic, but that has been settled, for now, with the establishment of an elected assembly at Stormont where nationalist and unionist parties share power. The next assembly elections are in May 2011. That election, as far as most Northern Ireland parties are concerned, is when the real action will be.