Tomorrow night (April 2nd), the Northern Ireland Conservatives will hold a special general meeting to discuss the way forward for politics in Northern Ireland.
This meeting is very welcome. It will be a rare opportunity for Northern Ireland conservatives to listen to a report from its committee (and perhaps Owen Paterson) on the progress of negotiations with the Ulster Unionist Party and to express their views.
A few weeks ago, Jeffrey Peel resigned from the joint committee on a point of principle. He was subsequently suspended from his position as Vice Chairman of the area committee for publicising his reasons for his resignation and confidential information. He was wrong to do that. Paradoxically, it could have been worse for the Conservatives and the UUP if he had just resigned and said nothing. The media might have been worked itself into a frenzy of speculation.
The meeting should not dwell on criticism of Jeffrey Peel’s actions. That is a matter for the powers that be. However, the concerns that he has expressed should be taken very seriously, discussed and fully addressed.
Northern Ireland Conservatives are united on key political objectives at least. We all want normal politics in Northern Ireland. We all want the people of Northern Ireland to have the opportunity to vote for the party (or political force) which can form the government of the United Kingdom. What we do not all agree upon is how we should seek to achieve these objectives in the best interests of the Conservative Party and the Northern Ireland electorate. The central issue that has been raised by Jeffrey Peel is “Should we try to achieve these objectives with or without the Ulster Unionist Party?”
If there is a strong clamour by the membership to change our present course, then the leadership of our party should not ignore the wishes of Northern Ireland Conservatives. It must then decide to what extent our relationship with the UUP can work and whether the terms of the agreement should be re-negotiated with a view to ending it if our terms are not met. On the other hand, if the number of dissenters is relatively small, then those members who are opposed to continuing with the UUP link-up must respect the mainstream view and withdraw their resistance.
One thing that I have learned in recent weeks is that the Ulster Unionist Party’s constitutional structure does not concentrate power in the leadership, unlike the Conservative Party. That is one of the main reasons why progress has been slow. That is also why some issues, which might have been expected to have been negotiated prior to the agreement in November (such as logo, joint names and colours), had to be left until later. The understandable impatience of some Conservatives could be tempered by that knowledge and understanding.
After tomorrow night, it is very important that we all turn our immediate attention to the European Elections. So far, the Conservatives have not done very much campaigning for Jim Nicholson. On this blog, at least, his campaign will be given more attention from now on.