UKIP's rise, Scottish independence and Northern Ireland

UKIP leader Nigel Farage

UKIP leader Nigel Farage

By Steven McCaffery

THE elections in Northern Ireland have been very inward looking – but that could be about to change.

There was an inevitable focus on the arrest of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams at the beginning of the campaign, and the electoral race has ended with us rubbernecking at the NI21 party’s political car crash.

But even before the final results are known in Northern Ireland, it is already looking as if the elections that are being held elsewhere could potentially be more important for our future.

The UKIP breakthrough that was revealed in election counts held overnight in England has already sparked early headlines of “shockwave” and “earthquake”. The party that was once written-off as the loony right is now said to be “causing mayhem” for Britain’s main political parties.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage is noting that while his party had previously eaten mainly into Conservative Party territory, the results of the local government elections have shown UKIP surging in areas such as the Labour stronghold of Rotherham.

He said his party is now looking towards the General Election scheduled for next year.

“There are areas of the country where we have now got an imprint in local government,” the UKIP leader told the BBC.

“Under the first-past-the-post system we are serious players. What we will do over the course of the summer is we will choose our target constituencies and throw the kitchen sink at them.”

Imagine how all this looks to those people in Scotland who are undecided on how to vote in their country’s independence referendum in September.

Tory policies are already deeply unpopular in Scotland and you can bet that Scottish nationalists will now be warning of the `Farage factor’.

Opinion polls in Scotland continue to show a lean towards a vote against breaking away from the rest of the UK, but the Yes campaign is narrowing the gap.

The pro-Union lobby group in Scotland, Better Together, has been accused of playing on the fears of the Scottish people, with doom-laden warnings of the dire financial consequences of independence.

But now the pro-independence strategists have a powerful `fear’ card of their own to play.

If some Scots resented being governed from Westminster by a Conservative Party they hadn’t voted for, they will be warned constantly now of the implications of the rise of UKIP in England.

UKIP will now exert ever more influence over the policy directions of the big Westminster parties – and its brand of rightwing and anti-European rhetoric could cause some Scots to think again about the Union.

The independence debate in Scotland has a long way to go, and the pro-Union camp has the advantage, but the remainder of the debate will now be played-out against the backdrop of blanket media coverage of UKIP’s rise to prominence.

A decision to opt for independence in Scotland would have huge consequences for Northern Ireland as it would raise key questions about how the remainder of the UK might function.

But even the emergence of a more tightly fought referendum contest could be significant.

Pro-Union parties are already promising Scottish voters greater devolution if they reject independence, but the cost of that trade-off could go up if we begin to see an even closer race, and that alone could have implications for Stormont.

Completely separate to the Scottish Question, is the fact that the UKIP surge will strengthen the hand of those pushing for a major rethink of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

Any prospect of altering the links with Europe could have a major impact on Northern Ireland, particularly for its farming sector. The Ulster Farmer’s Union has said that the EU’s Single Farm Payment accounted for 87% of the total income from farming in Northern Ireland last year.

The DUP is currently enjoying some close attention from David Cameron, as his party worries about how it might strengthen its hand at Westminster in the time ahead.

And while that may offer the DUP a tactical advantage in the Westminster numbers game, the Scottish issue and the question of Europe raise deeper fundamental questions about the direction of politics on these islands.

And at the same moment as Northern Ireland ponders the external pressures from across the Irish Sea, another major factor is being put to the test south of the Irish border.

As voters go to the polls in the Republic of Ireland, the local government and European Parliament elections there will reveal if Sinn Féin can convert soaring opinion poll ratings into real political capital.

As previously reported by The Detail here, the party is seeking to set down roots in the south that will establish a foundation on which to build towards potential seats in government in Dublin.

The election counts inside Northern Ireland will no doubt throw up their own surprises, but it is already clear that contests outside the jurisdiction could have a much bigger impact.

See: Sinn Féin has set down roots in the republic