Meanwhile, beyond England, opportunities emerge

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Indy Politics

The major parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were positioning themselves last night to take advantage of any political leverage they might be presented with in a hung parliament.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have all indicated that they are prepared to negotiate deals with the main Westminster parties in an attempt to acquire political concessions.

In moves reminiscent of what routinely happens after Dublin elections, the main regional parties are all hoping to benefit from the UK result that has left no party with a majority of MPs.

Since elections in the Irish Republic rarely deliver a majority result, contests are generally followed by weeks of bargaining as larger parties seek to form coalitions or secure promises of parliamentary support.

Although it seems unlikely that either the Scottish or Welsh parties are prepared to negotiate with the Tories, both are open to making an arrangement with Labour.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland, showed open relish for a bout of horse-trading, saying Plaid Cymru and his party had accepted an invitation for talks with Gordon Brown.

He added: "Fate seems to have dealt us a mighty hand. I know exactly how you should go about this and it doesn't involve showing too much of your hand before you have the discussions.

"As I understand it, on the projection we have at the present moment, certainly there would have to be some involvement of the SNP and Plaid Cymru if you were to get and construct an alternative government scenario."

Mr Salmond had previously said he wanted to make Westminster "dance to a Scottish jig", and although he has had to scale down his expectations he will be hoping to at least tempt Mr Brown on to the dance floor. His party and Plaid Cymru, which have a combined strength of nine seats, will now draw up a list of demands to put to Mr Brown. This will certainly include the seeking of assurances that Scotland and Wales would face fewer public expenditure cuts than expected.

The two parties will also be anxious to win concessions to help restore their fortunes in the wake of disappointing election results. The SNP made no gains while Plaid Cymru went up from two seats to three.

The same considerations apply even more to the Democratic Unionist Party whose leader, Peter Robinson, lost his seat. His position is now in some doubt, but his chances of survival would be increased if he could extract significant concessions from London.

In contrast to the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the DUP would consider linking up with either Labour or the Tories: unionists have done both in the past. Despite the loss of Mr Robinson's seat, the party still has eight MPs, none of whom has ideological objections to David Cameron or Gordon Brown.

In fact, the DUP's horse-trading with Labour began even before polling day, when Mr Brown wrote to Mr Robinson promising that the financial block grant, transferred to Belfast from London annually, would not be cut in the present financial year.

This was the DUP's key demand, and since it has already been dealt with in advance by Mr Brown it will seek other concessions. For both Labour and the Tories a major attraction in a DUP deal is the fact that its demands are likely to be confined to Belfast rather than involving a UK agenda.

The DUP does not, however, constitute an ideal partner for either of the major British parties, since it is very much an old-fashioned Protestant party with no known Catholic members.

Although it has abandoned some of its old policies, for example today tolerating homosexuality where once it spearheaded a "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign, it has also been embroiled in the recent parliamentary expenses scandal, with the loss of Mr Robinson's seat largely attributed to this and to allegations that he has been too close to local property developers.

The Dublin experience of recent decades has left a sense that post-electoral deal-making does not have to be done in a rush, and may well be better conducted at a leisurely pace.

Coalitions, or supportive arrangements, are often constructed over a period of weeks as permutations are talked through. In some instances a coalition has been formed with smaller parties or independent members then tacked on to provide extra stability.

In such cases it is quite usual for members to be given political gifts for their constituencies, for example in the form of a new bridge or a decision not to close a hospital. Sometimes political deals prove unstable and collapse, while in other cases parties form remarkably amicable partnerships.