With the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont, the question arises whether the Westminster election on May 6 is really that important in itself, or whether its importance lies in its function as a curtain-raiser for next year's Assembly election.
Considerable effort is expended contesting the 18 Westminster seats, despite the fact that the 13 or 14 Northern Irish MPs who will actually go to Westminster afterwards have effectively no power. No British government will tolerate dependency on a small group of Northern Irish MPs (despite the DUP's 'hung parliament' blackmail fantasies), and regardless of whether David Trimble gets his moment in the sun under David Cameron, the largest block that Northern Ireland is likely to be able to field will still be miniscule in comparison to the overall number of MPs. So Northern Ireland will have almost no power in a parliament that does not even legislate for many issues, as these have been devolved.
But the Assembly, where actual day-to-day administration is carried out, is elected using the same 18 constituencies as Westminster, and an Assembly election is due barely one year later than the Westminster election. So are the parties fighting the May 6 election partly in order to position themselves, and test the waters, before the Assembly election?
The outcome of the Westminster election will allow the parties to judge where they will need to invest more heavily in order to capture (or avoid losing) Assembly seats. It will allow everybody to assess the likely strengths in the next Assembly – and, of course, crucially to see whether the next First Minister will be Martin McGuinness!
The absence of the DUP from North Down, and all three unionist parties from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, will complicate matters, of course. FST is probably easier to calculate though – as long as unionism scores around 45% of the vote it will get 3 out of the 6 Assembly seats, though the breakdown between the parties can only be extrapolated from results elsewhere. Neither the DUP not the UUP will be able accurately to assess their strengths in North Down because neither is really standing there – the UCUNF candidate cannot be seen as representative of UUP strength there, as many of Hermon's votes may return to the UUP in 2011 when she is not standing.
Amongst the nationalist parties, the Westminster election is definitely a curtain-raiser for next year. There is no chance whatsoever of Fearghal McKinney being elected on May 6 so either the SDLP is trying to spoil things for Sinn Féin (not out of the question), or they are trying to establish a beach-head in FST for 2011. Likewise in several other constituencies where a nationalist victory in 2010 is impossible (East Antrim, East Belfast, Strangford, etc) the parties may simply be testing the waters to see what their chances next year will be.
Behind the crowing triumphalism (from either side) after May 6, a small army of number-crunchers will be going to work for all of the parties to calculate the likely effects of the vote on the outcome of the next Assembly election. Because that, ultimately, affects things in the north more than having a semi-retired TV personality snoozing on the green leather in Westminster. The election campaign for 2011 will start on May 7 2010.