However, in Britain the media attention is focussed more on the possibility of a hung parliament, and on what the outcome of such a situation might be.
One very obvious outcome is that one or other smaller party may hold the balance of power, and thus be in a position to extract benefits from its position. The DUP have hopes in that direction, as do the SNP. But the most obvious candidate for 'king-maker' is the Liberal Democrats (LibDems).
Today the LibDems published their election manifesto, and although it barely mentions Northern Ireland (and why would it, the LibDems are an exclusively British party), buried deep within its 112 pages is a commitment that may turn out to be highly significant to Northern Ireland's electoral future, should the LibDems be in a strong bargaining position after May 6.
On page 87 the LibDems return to an issue that has motivated them for years, but which they have never yet had the power to change – the inherent unfairness of the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. This is the system which famously gave the overwhelmingly nationalist voters of West Tyrone a unionist MP in 1997, gave the marginally unionist-majority South Belfast an SDLP MP in 2005, and may well give the marginally nationalist Fermanagh and South Tyrone an 'independent' (but Conservative affiliated) unionist on May 6.
The LibDem manifesto states that:
Liberal Democrats will:
• Change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties. Under the new system, we will be able to reduce the number of MPs by 150.
This promise also forms part of the LibDems headline '4 steps to a fairer Britain'.
Leaving aside for the time being the issue of reducing the number of MPS (though this is interesting in itself), the possibility of introducing STV proportional representation (PR-STV) in Westminster elections would revolutionise them in Northern Ireland. PR-STV would mean that voters can vote for whatever first preference candidate they want, knowing that if s/he is not elected, their vote will transfer to their second preference, and so on.
Voting pacts would be obsolete, as would calls for 'unionist unity' or 'nationalist unity'. Two, three or ten unionist or nationalist candidates could contest each seat, and as long as their votes transferred within their own blocks, the outcome would be fairly proportional to the votes. If, as would be logical, the PR-STV system was used in multi-member constituencies (as is the case in all other elections in Northern Ireland), then the outcome would tend to represent the share of the overall vote received by the parties or blocks.
In the currently controversial case of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the LibDems proposal, if taken to its logical conclusion, would see the seat as merely one of, say, three in the west of Northern Ireland (e.g. FST, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster combined into a single three-seater). In such a constituency the outcome would be two nationalists and one unionist, which is close to the actual share of the vote in that area.
If the number of seats is reduced, perhaps to 15, the whole of Northern Ireland could be divided into four constituencies; three 4-seaters and a 3-seater. Depending on the shape of these constituencies the outcome would vary, but it would certainly be fairer than the current outcome (in Belfast, for instance, where nationalists and unionists are almost equal in number, May 7 might see three unionists and only one nationalist – or the reverse. Under PR-STV that would be a fairer 2-2 split).
At this stage, of course, the LibDems promise is merely a promise – they may not get to hold the balance of power, and even if they do, they may not be able to force the main governing party to accept their plans for PR-STV. But it certainly would make more of a long-term impact on Northern Ireland than the tired old arguments about voting pacts. This is an issue worth watching.