Northern Ireland: Ulster's Unionists claim cash pledge from Brown

DUP reveals letter from PM promising no public spending cuts in the face of a possible hung parliament

The Democratic Unionist party in Belfast last night triumphantly produced a letter from Gordon Brown which they claimed shows that they are being wooed for their support in a hung parliament.

In the text Mr Brown explicitly agrees to the DUP demand that public spending in Northern Ireland will not be cut in the current financial year. This has been the party's primary stipulation for lending its support to a government without a majority in the new parliament. It had been expected that any new government would make cuts in the money provided from London to Belfast.

Mr Brown wrote that he recognised "the unique problems that arose as a direct consequence of the years of The Troubles," adding: "It is essential that the recently established political recovery is not put at risk."

His words may provide a last-minute poll boost to the DUP, which is led by Peter Robinson, in that they will be taken as acknowledgement of the party's potentially increased importance. The DUP has repeatedly appealed for votes on the basis that its MPs could be in a strong position to negotiate with either Labour or the Conservatives.

Such a deal has not been publicly ruled out by David Cameron, even though he has formed a close alliance with the smaller Ulster Unionists. But with the Unionist party well behind, and the DUP on course to win up to nine of Northern Ireland's 18 seats, the Robinson party has hoped Mr Cameron would come looking for support.

This is increasingly the main focus of attention in the closing stages of the Northern Ireland campaign, although voting patterns will continue to be dominated by the traditional Unionist-Nationalist battles.

Mr Robinson yesterday appealed for DUP support with the rallying cry: "Your vote can make the difference between real clout and real cuts." This reflects the DUP's central demand for a dropping of plans to slice into the Northern Ireland budget.

While there will be close contests in a few seats, the two strongest parties are set to remain the DUP and Sinn Fein, which between them may win up to 14 of the 18 seats. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party is expected to take three, with a pro-Labour Unionist taking another.

Such an outcome would preserve the balance already existing in the Belfast Assembly, which in many ways is jointly controlled by Sinn Fein and the DUP. A pivotal place in a hung parliament would constitute an amazing transformation in the fortunes of the DUP, which has taken an extraordinary pummelling in recent months.

The saga of Mr Robinson's wife, Iris, who had an affair with a teenage boy, together with the family's proficiency in the field of collecting political wages and expenses, attracted widespread criticism. Other financial issues led to jibes that the DUP stood for "Developers Unionist party".

In the light of all this a major slump in DUP fortunes was forecast. This belief was strengthened when a local opinion poll indicated a major drain in DUP support. Yet the slice of luck for the party is that it seems destined to lose many votes but not many seats, since its majorities are already so large.

A striking example of this is Strangford, Iris Robinson's old seat. The opinion poll indicates that while DUP support there has fallen by 13 per cent, its candidate still remains 17 points ahead of a Unionist rival. When the scandal broke, Mrs Robinson resigned her seat and all other public offices. In the months since then she has not been seen publicly, with the exception of a paparazzi photograph snatched in a London street. She is said to be receiving psychiatric care.

A stroll through Newtownards, the local market town, illustrates why her husband's party will retain her old seat. Four young lads outside an ice-cream parlour smirked that the Iris saga had been "scandalous", but in common with others they agreed that it had "died down a fair bit". Nobody denounced Iris: mention of her typically produced shrugs rather than condemnation.

Jim Shannon, who is fighting to retain the seat for the DUP, said the question of Iris was raised "by the odd one here and there, but not in any numbers". By contrast there is certainly anger about her husband, centring on property deals and relationships with local builders. The bottom line is that the party may shed votes but not seats.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, has also been on the receiving end of a flood of negative publicity in recent months, centring on allegations that he had not done enough to expose child abuse within his family. There have also been accusations that he was actively involved in a number of IRA murders in the 1970s, including that of a widowed mother.

These may make some dent in his personal showing in West Belfast, but his support there was so vast – he took 70 per cent in the last election – that he remains electorally unassailable. The poll suggested that in most other constituencies Sinn Fein will increase its vote, thus retaining its grip on nationalist politics. It can have no role in a hung parliament, however, since its members do not take their seats in the Commons.

Highlights of the day

Press release of the day

With the Liberal Democrats crossing everything for a hung parliament, they have stressed that a coalition wouldn't damage the country. That message doesn't seem to have made it to the employers of Nick Clegg's wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez. She works for the law firm DLA Piper which yesterday put out a statement with their official position on a hung parliament, criticising the "sheer time it can take to achieve consensus" and "endless rounds of review and compromise". Pillow talk could be frosty in the Clegg household.

Dirty tactic of the day

In a last-ditch bid to persuade its readers to vote Tory, The Sun threatens the end of the Page 3 girl if David Cameron doesn't make it to Downing Street. The paper claims Labour and the Liberal Democrats would put the topless models out of a job. "This is no bad joke, folks," wrote political editor Tom Newton Dunn. Others beg to differ.

Endorsement of the day

Unwelcome news for Schools Secretary Ed Balls as the Morley Observer backs Tory rival candidate Antony Calvert to be the MP for Morley and Outwood.

Legal letter of the day

To unnamed publications from solicitors acting for Philippa Stroud, the Conservative candidate for Sutton and Cheam, following articles saying that she founded a church which prayed for people who believed their homosexuality to be caused by demonic possession. "Gay exorcisms" have not been adopted as Tory policy.

Billy Kenber

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