Northern Ireland might be a small place that has receded from the public imagination since the end of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but it might just be propelled back into the political spotlight.
It remains religiously and politically divided along sectarian fault lines, but the 18 MPs that it returns to Westminster might just hold the key to forming the next government in the event of a hung parliament. Its pro-British Unionist parties, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has links to the neo-Conservative Christian right and the Ulster Unionist Party, are traditional Tories in Westminster.
In recent months there have been two major developments.
Firstly, to combat the threat of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA which has made the dramatic move from the political margins to leading Nationalist party, the Unionist parties have agreed an electoral pact to only run one pro-unionist candidate in four constituencies.
Secondly, this pact means that the DUP, assured of keeping at least seven of its current eight MPs, while also winning back its leader Peter Robinson’s East Belfast seat, is in a position to demand financial reward for supporting whichever government is formed after May 7.
The Independent noted that Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the former radical Protestant DUP leader, said the party, “will seek up to a billion pounds more funding for Northern Ireland as the price of keeping a Tory or Labour government in power.”
With the former three party domination of Westminster likely to be smashed at this general election, thanks to the remarkable Post-Indy Ref advance of the Scottish Nationalists north of the border and the projected growth in UKIP in England, the smaller parties are central to forming the next government.
Northern Ireland shows there is always going to be a price to pay for that support.