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Ulster's coalition partners set to make modest gains

Weathering storms together has brought the leaders of Sinn Fein and DUP closer as election approaches

As the coalition at Westminster stumbles around tripping over its feet, Northern Irish voters are already seasoned veterans when it comes to the "new politics". When they go to the polls on 5 May, few expect them to shake the Sinn Fein/DUP pact that has ruled the province for the past four years.

While critics of coalition politics fear it results in an insipid mush, Northern Irish politicians believe the big problem in an age of peace is how to motivate people to vote and persuade them that the devolved power-sharing executive can really make a difference.

When every election in Northern Ireland was treated as a border poll, with unionists lining up to back parties pledged to keep them in the United Kingdom, turnout was traditionally the highest in Britain, often passing 70 per cent.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, only a referendum can change the constitutional status quo, and even the DUP, which used to cry wolf at every election, is assuring voters that the "union is secure".

Its manifesto is full of proposals for social and economic reform: it promises a push in government to increase religiously integrated education and has set itself the objective of a shared society. Religiously segregated facilities are now considered a waste of money.

Sinn Fein, the other side of the ruling axis, mentions a united Ireland in its manifesto, but in practice it generally sings from the same hymn sheet as the DUP. Last year's "Irisgate" scandal, in which it emerged that Peter Robinson's wife Iris, also an MP, had solicited money from property developers on behalf of her teenage lover, seems to have strengthened Mr Robinson's relationship with Martin McGuinness.

The two men shook hands for the first time when Mr McGuinness expressed personal sympathy for the Robinsons. Now they exchange text messages about football.

After the recent murder of Constable Ronan Kerr of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Mr McGuinness warned the dissident republican killers: "You will not destroy the good working relationship between Peter Robinson and me." He later revealed that the officer had been a Sinn Fein voter. He and Mr Robinson followed through by attending Constable Kerr's funeral together, the first time the DUP leader had attended a Catholic mass.

This united front is both popular and reassuring, but it undermines calls for unionists to vote DUP in order to defeat Sinn Fein. Adrian Eastwood, a local bookmaker who has been setting odds on Northern Ireland elections since 1983, is probably the most dispassionate observer of the local political scene you will find.

"Even though Peter Robinson had problems, I think he is over them. He has made a significant effort to present himself as less hardline, and that is voter-friendly," he said. "The public face of the relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness is fairly good. It strikes people as more genuine. Both of them seem determined to make it work."

It seems likely that the Sinn Fein/DUP juggernaut with gain a little more ground from the UUP and SDLP on 5 May. Those parties, once dominant under David Trimble and John Hume respectively, are now described by Mr McGuinness as "the internal opposition" in the power-sharing administration.

The middle-of-the-road Alliance Party is also expected to do reasonably well. It gave Mr Robinson a fright last year when its deputy leader, Naomi Long, took, his East Belfast Westminster seat. That probably accelerated the DUP's move to the centre. The Traditional Unionist Voice, a hardline breakaway group from the DUP, may also gain its first seat, in North Antrim.