NI parties and voters set for third election of 2019

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Voters and parties in Northern Ireland are set to go to the polls for a third time this year.

On Tuesday evening, MPs backed a government bill calling for an election on 12 December.

The 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs voted in favour, while Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon voted against.

The bill is still to be approved by the Lords but could become law by the end of the week. Here’s what you need to know ahead of a Westminster election.

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How the UK leaves the EU will be the main campaign issue in Northern Ireland

Will Brexit be the main campaign issue?

Almost certainly, because with Parliament stuck on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, it seems the parties in Northern Ireland will be split on the issue too.

The DUP has vehemently opposed the revised deal because it would lead to NI and Great Britain being treated differently.

It is the only one of the main parties in Northern Ireland which supports Brexit.

The main pro-remain parties – Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Alliance – will argue against the DUP’s strategy.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) will try to distinguish its brand of unionism and single out the DUP for propping up the government’s Brexit negotiations.

The party was split during the 2016 referendum, although it officially campaigned to remain.

While outgoing leader Robin Swann backed leave, his successor Steve Aiken has since said it would be better for the whole of the UK to remain in the EU than take the prime minister’s Brexit deal.

Who will run?

There are 18 Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland, meaning 18 seats out of 650 in the Commons are up for grabs.

The DUP holds 10 seats, Sinn Féin has seven – but its MPs do not take their seats due to a long-standing policy of abstentionism – and independent unionist MP Lady Hermon holds North Down.

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Media captionEU election joy for Naomi Long and Martina Anderson

It is not clear if Lady Hermon will run again to retain her seat. She faced stiff competition for it from the DUP’s Alex Easton in 2017.

Another question some are already asking is whether Alliance leader Naomi Long will stand in East Belfast, to try and reclaim the seat from DUP MP Gavin Robinson.

She held it between 2010 and 2015, when she lost it to him and he successfully retained it in 2017.

Mrs Long is now an MEP in Brussels, having won the seat for Alliance for the first time in May – but given her party’s surge in that election and the council elections in May, she may be tempted to try to secure Westminster representation for Alliance again.

Are pacts out of the question?

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Steve Aiken, MLA for South Antrim, will be the Ulster Unionist Party’s new leader and has already ruled out electoral pacts

According to the leader-elect of the UUP, Steve Aiken, they are.

He is due to officially become the new leader on 9 November, and has already vowed not to stand aside in any constituency this time.

Unionist parties have traditionally agreed electoral pacts in certain constituencies in order to maximise the number of unionist MPs at Westminster.

They feel that if the unionist vote is split between them it means it is more likely a nationalist MP will take the seat.

Mr Aiken has said his party will stand in all 18 constituencies this time, which sparked concern from others within unionist circles that key seats could be at risk.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said if there was not a pact, North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds could lose his seat and accused Mr Aiken of wanting to “hand away seats to Sinn Féin”.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone a unionist pact secured the UUP a seat for Tom Elliott in 2015 – but he lost it to Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew two years later.

However, Mr Aiken said unionist voters needed to be offered a choice and that his party could not be seen to criticise the DUP but then agree an electoral pact with them.

Expect more pressure on the incoming UUP leader to change his mind in the coming days.

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Colum Eastwood said there was pressure from within the SDLP for him to stand.

What about other key battlegrounds?

In June 2017, the SDLP suffered a shock defeat in Foyle with ex-party leader Mark Durkan losing to Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion.

Traditionally an SDLP stronghold, the party is keen to win it back and there are whispers that current party leader Colum Eastwood could run this time – so that race could be tight.

South Belfast is also an interesting constituency.

It’s currently held by DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, but already the SDLP and Alliance believe they are in contention to secure it – with high-profile assembly members Claire Hanna and Paula Bradshaw throwing their hats into the ring for those parties respectively.

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Sinn Féin and the DUP have pointed the finger at each other over the failed talks process

What will it mean for Stormont talks?

Northern Ireland has been without a government for almost three years, after power-sharing partners the DUP and Sinn Féin split in a bitter row.

The UK government has said it is engaged in talks with the parties to restore the institutions – but efforts in recent weeks have been flat due to the Brexit deadlock.

Expect talks to grind to a halt entirely in an election period.

With battle lines between the parties drawn in a bid to win seats, it would be hard to imagine the parties setting aside their differences to get the institutions in Northern Ireland back up and running.

In the meantime the government will continue to take some decisions, along with day-to-day governmental business being overseen by civil servants.

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Campaigners have been calling for compensation to be implemented since early 2017

What about NI-related legislation currently in the Commons?

Right now it’s not entirely clear but it’s understood efforts are under way to save a bill that would provide compensation to victims of Historical Institutional Abuse.

The bill was included in the government’s policy agenda known as the Queen’s Speech – but if Parliament is dissolved at the end of this week for the election campaign, the bill would be lost and would need to be re-introduced in the next parliamentary session.

The government could include it in what’s known as a “wash-up” period before parliament breaks for election, but it could mean some of the bill would need to be stripped out in order for it to pass all the stages of Parliament before dissolution.

The Northern Ireland Office has also introduced another budget bill for Stormont, which needs to be passed by MPs before Parliament is dissolved.

But in the event it did not pass all stages, senior civil servants at Stormont could use emergency powers to take control of finances until a new budget is in place from Westminster.


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