The General Election has left the United Kingdom with a hung parliament. This could mean that instead of waiting for four years before the next general election, we may only be waiting for less than a year. In addition, we have Assembly elections to think about next year. If we are going to offer something attractive to the Northern Ireland electorate before these elections, important decisions need to be made now.
The UCUNF project offered something new to the Northern Ireland electorate. It offered a chance for voters to participate in National Politics and select the next Government of the United Kingdom. It was a worthy and noble project. It was not the fault of the Northern Irish electorate that they did not take up that opportunity. The handling of the project was a shambles. Furthermore, once a deal was made for a single unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the project became compromised.
The Alliance Party and the Liberal Democrats achieved something that should have been an achievement of UCUNF. Just before polling day, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats publicly took ownership of the Alliance Party’s election campaign. The appeal by Nick Clegg to support Naomi Long, amplified by the report in the Belfast Telegraph, will go down in Northern Ireland’s political history as the first successful piece of campaigning in living memory by a National political party for a candidate contesting a Northern Ireland Parliamentary seat.
The Ulster Unionist Party looks set to tear itself apart. In one camp, there are those that want to draw the party towards a shared Unionist home with the DUP. They will seek to influence uncertain members by telling them that the DUP has moved away from its “no compromise” days. In another camp, there are those who would like to lead the party in the direction of a more progressive type of unionism. There are people in first camp who will blame the UCUNF project for the party’s present position. The reality is that those same people – some of them very senior UUP members – sabotaged the UCUNF project.
I would like to think that the progressive camp would gain enough influence on the rank and file membership to seize control of the party. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen. However, even if, hypothetically, the progressive camp did seize control, there are so many senior figures in the other camp that the result would be extreme instability. A highly unstable UUP is not fit for a project like UCUNF. This election has borne that out very clearly. In conclusion, I can see no future for the UCUNF project on the basis of an alliance between the two parties.
Had there been some measure of success for UCUNF, I believe that eventually, it would have merged with the Northern Ireland Conservatives as part of a federal structure where the new party enjoyed autonomy over its local policies and candidate selection but still remained affiliated to the main Conservative Party.
Northern Ireland Conservatives will appreciate that since David Cameron became our leader, our branch of the party has ceased to be neglected, as we previously were, like a forgotten outpost at the edge of the frontier. At grass roots level, the party has benefited and membership has grown considerably in the last four years. That is appreciated and it is hoped and expected that this support will continue. Last year, I was very encouraged to hear that David Cameron’s commitment to bringing conservativism in Northern Ireland was a long-term one and would not be coming to an end if there were significant disappointments along the way. I am confident that commitment will continue.
The deal over Fermanagh and South Tyrone has altered our position as a cross-community party. The road to achieving normal politics in Northern Ireland now looks longer and harder. If the decision to field a compromise candidate in that constituency had been left to Northern Ireland Conservatives, it would not have happened. The fact that it did is in no small part due to the pressure on the main Conservative Party to win as many seats as possible when a hung parliament became likely. It was a classic conflict of interest situation and it underpins a powerful argument for changing the constitution of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party.
Today, we find ourselves damaged by the UCUNF project to the extent that Conservatives are now tainted, by association, with sectarianism. We need something radical to change very quickly, if we are to get back on course towards our long term political aims in Northern Ireland.
The conflict of interest point, which I have outlined above and the need to build up our credibility with Catholics, in particular, both form part of a case for more power and control to be given to Northern Ireland Conservatives over matters which include regional policy, candidate selection and the development of a new brand. Effectively, I am advocating independence for Northern Ireland Conservatives on all crucial decisions except in relation to National policymaking and funding.
Underpinning that proposal, a more autonomously independent Northern Ireland Conservative Party would have a much greater chance of recognition as a cross-community party by entrenching certain rules within its constitution. One such rule should be that there are no sectarian deals on seats or candidates with other unionist parties.
I believe this is the right model for Northern Ireland Conservatives going forward. I also believe it is right for the main Conservative Party too.
Filed under: Alliance Party, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, David Cameron, DUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Nick Clegg, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | Tagged: Alliance Party, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, David Cameron, DUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, General Election, Hung Parliament, Naomi Long, Nick Clegg, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland Conservative Party, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, Tory-UUP linkup, UCUNF, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | 14 Comments »