Election 2015: NI MPs must 'focus on power not pounds' if election leads to hung parliament

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

image captionOpinion polls suggest there is a strong prospect of a hung parliament after May's General Election

If there is a hung parliament in May, Northern Ireland politicians should ask Westminster for extra economic powers, according to a leading economist.

Prof Neil Gibson from Ulster University said simply asking for money to fix "today's emergency" would be a missed opportunity.

He said if Northern Ireland parties become involved in negotiations with Labour or the Conservatives they must think about long-term economic change.

Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland's The View programme he said: "This is a unique opportunity - it does not come round very often so asking for money to fix today's emergency would really be a missed opportunity".

image captionProf Neil Gibson says Northern Ireland MPs should look for 'power, not pounds' in the event of a hung parliament

Prof Gibson said he believed Stormont should have greater control of taxes such as stamp duty, and local politicians should be able to decide what to do with welfare reform savings."

He said: "What I would be wanting to focus on is power not pounds. So, ways that we can get abilities or new powers for Northern Ireland to make decisions or choices that will help us tackle the problems that have been with us for over a generation."

His comments come as opinion polls suggest there is a strong prospect of a hung parliament after May's general election.

If that happens it could give parties from Northern Ireland much more influence at Westminster.

'Wish list'

The DUP, which currently has eight MPs, said they could support either a Labour or Conservative administration.

The party has already outlined part of its 'wish list'; what it would require to support any fresh administration at Westminster.

The DUP opposes the so-called 'bedroom tax', and it wants 2% of GDP as a bare minimum for defence spending.

The party has also said it wants a referendum on future European Union membership.

image captionDUP MP Ian Paisley says his party will look to 'squeeze' more money from the government

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley told the BBC: "If we can get more and squeeze more from the United Kingdom government - no matter what colour it is, red or blue - we will do that, that is our job."

One report published by The Independent newspaper has suggested that the DUP might seek £1bn more funding for Northern Ireland.

However, Prof Gibson has urged caution.

He said: "Today's £1bn will be tomorrow's £2bn. There is always money needed for various things but they won't tackle the fundamental problems that Northern Ireland has.

"We need the power to plough our own furrow to make a new Northern Ireland with the values we want."

'Welfare cap'

While the DUP said the party was open-minded over who it might support in a future government, the SDLP - which currently have three MPs - said it would only back Labour.

The SDLP wants VAT on tourism to be reduced and reductions to air passenger duty.

The party also wants the welfare cap to be removed and wants to stay in the European Union.

image captionSDLP MP Margaret Ritchie denies suggestions that Labour can take their support for granted

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said her party has not put a price tag on the cost of its support to a future Labour administration.

'Hard bargain'

She told The View: "We haven't put a figure on it. We would be saying to Labour - post the election, if they are in a position to form a government - the people of Northern Ireland, whether you live in a rural area or a urban community, need economic guarantees or economic protections."

She has denied any suggestion that Labour can take the SDLP's support for granted.

She said: "We will be driving a hard bargain. Naturally, we will be coming with three or maybe four potential MPs and they will be coming with considerably more.

"If they are looking for our support I would like to think we could be in the mix when it comes to negotiations."

'Likely bedfellows'

While the DUP said it was open to working with either the Conservatives or Labour, some think the Tories would be a better fit with the DUP.

image captionDr Sophie Whiting says the Conservatives rather than Labour would be a better fit with the DUP

Dr Sophie Whiting, an academic from the University of Liverpool, said: "The Conservatives are much more likely bedfellows in a sense that the Conservatives probably need the DUP a bit more than maybe Labour would."

She added: "I think maybe Labour would look towards the SNP first. They obviously have the more natural alliance with Plaid Cymru and they obviously have a more natural alliance with the SDLP as well before they would look to the DUP."

So how might our other parties respond in the event of a hung parliament?

The Alliance Party's Naomi Long said she does not have a shopping list for Labour or the Conservatives. The East Belfast MP said she will look to whatever party helps deliver Alliance manifesto pledges.

Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is standing in North Down, left the Ulster Unionists over their pact with the Conservatives and during this parliament often sat with Labour.

'No control'

Sinn Féin, whose five MPs do not take their seats, say they have little interest in who is in power in London.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "The people of Britain will decide what they decide in the course of the next while.

"It won't make a jot of difference in my opinion, the seats that come from here in relation to the establishment of the next government. But that's something over which we have no control."

Northern Ireland issues rarely make big waves at Westminster these days but May's election could change that.

A hung parliament could turn local names into national figures and could result in our parties taking centre stage.

Stephen Walker's TV report will be broadcast on The View on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:45 GMT on Thursday, 26 March.

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