Yesterday, at long last, details of the Hatfield House talks emerged, albeit in the Guardian and the Times also discussed on Jeffrey Peel’s blog. As a result, we now have substantial have clarity over the matters which we feared would give us much cause for concern.
Putting the two reports together, we now have confirmation that Owen Paterson did discuss with the UUP and the DUP the possibility of a new unionist party or force which would have three core commitments. These were
• Making the Northern Ireland assembly and the executive work.
• Upholding power-sharing with nationalists.
I would not blame any reasonable unionist for nodding his head in agreement on reading those bullet points. Unfortunately, the first core principle in this proposal (non-sectarianism) is now impossible to achieve on the basis of forming a united unionist party or force. Moreover, Unionism has to be relegated from being a dominant political ideology if we are ever to achieve normal politics in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this week, following the news that Alex Kane had resigned from his post as UUP communications director, Lord Trimble published on his blog copies of the emails that were exchanged of emails between himself and Mr. Kane in November 2009. That exchange has illuminated a wide difference in the thinking behind the UCUNF project. Consider particularly the following points made by David Trimble.
“On the project your test is whether Cameron will back the unionist cause. How is that cause to be defined? Is it the Union or “facing down” nationalists? The project has the potential to widen and deepen the union. I know that large numbers of Catholics are effectively little “u” unionists. I was talking to several at last night’s Queens University Association London event, where I was speaking on this matter. But big U ethnic unionism will exclude them and force them back into ethnic nationalism.
The project was never about lining up the Conservative party alongside ethnic Unionism, but about replacing political structures based on constitutional and national issues, with politics based on social and economic issues using the same party structures that operate elsewhere in the UK. Incidentally for this we need the participation of Labour as well as the Conservatives. Between them Catholics can be offered something better than SF to vote for”
Note particularly the words highlighted in bold. In the paragraph that follows, he contrasts the scenario whereby the Conservatives line up alongside ethnic Unionism with “normal” politics which he describes as “politics based on social and economic issues using the same party structures that operate elsewhere in the UK”. In other words “left – right” politics, whereby Conservativism and Democratic Socialism replace Unionism and Nationalism as the dominant political ideologies.
When I wrote my essay on Conservativism, it was my understanding that the leaders of both the UUP and the Conservatives held a similar vision and viewpoint.
I am sure that Owen Paterson regrets holding talks with both the UUP and the DUP at Hatfield. He is still an exceptionally able politician who has done so much good work to help facilitate normal politics in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that he will be quick to grasp and accept the principles behind David Trimble’s comments.
I am not yet quite so sure about the leaders of the UUP. The exchange of e-mails between Trimble and Kane highlighted another significant difference in the expectations of the UCUNF project. It seems that the Ulster Unionists believe that it is acceptable to change the current power sharing structures under legislation brought by a Conservative government, regardless of Nationalist sensibilities.
Few would disagree that the current arrangements are politically dysfunctional and inefficient. However, any change to the system without cross-community consensus is simply not going to happen under a Conservative Government. As David Trimble makes clear, the Power Sharing structures were negotiated as part of a global constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland. If they are altered without Nationalist consent, it will hurl Northern Ireland backwards into the darkness.
Incremental evolution is what is needed to change the power sharing structures, not revolution. Over a period of time, such evolution can and should happen in an orderly negotiated way. Also, I do not believe that the SDLP is so far away from talking “turkey” about constitutional changes. Consider the following remarks made by Mark Durkan on the subject of changing power sharing structures. Here I repeat part of a post from Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times, September 14, 2008.
“Durkan’s words were measured. He described how the present system of all-party coalition at Stormont had developed with the SDLP’s support, and suggested that it may be nearing the end of its shelf life. In particular, he questioned the tribal system of “community designation” at Stormont which parcels out jobs to politicians on the basis of whether they choose to be nationalists or unionists.
“The system of designation was necessary because of where we were coming from but should not be necessary where we are going,” Durkan said. “I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed.”
He said it was necessary to have communal protection for nationalists and unionists, or Protestants and Catholics, while the new institutions bedded in, but that this essentially tribal arrangement should not become permanent. “As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice,” Durkan argued, making the case for a bill of rights to protect against abuses before any changes are made.
Durkan’s suggestion is for cross-community government with entrenched human rights safeguards, but not necessarily every party in government every time. He pointed to the cumbersome system of checks and balances which have paralysed decision making since devolution. “Protections of rights, interests and identities will still be needed but not only for, or only as, either unionists or nationalists,” he ventured. “
Surely this is the clearest indication that the SDLP is the party to do business with on the question of changing the Power Sharing structures.
There now needs to be some serious “head banging” and understanding between leaders of the Conservatives and the UUP with a view to being at one on political vision, long-term political objectives and the means by which they are to be achieved. That should have happened before the pact was formed but there is still time to discuss it and arrive at a meeting of minds.
The two recent meetings (Hatfield House and Schomburg House) have damaged UCUNF because they lend credence to the perception that they will too readily abandon their aspiration to bring non-sectarian politics to Northern Ireland in favour of short-term political advantage. In reality, the willingness to hold those talks was driven by well-meaning but misconceived political vision. The bottom line is that nothing has been agreed as a result of those talks.
Right now, leaders from both the UUP and the Conservative Party should be having meetings to review what has gone wrong and hopefully reach a conclusion that the Trimble way is the right way. If they can surmount those difficulties and bring their membership behind them, I believe UCUNF can survive and eventually thrive. There is still everything to play for.
Filed under: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, DUP, General Election, Good Friday Agreement, Ideology, Mark Durkan, Nationalism, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, Power Sharing, SDLP, Sir Reg. Empey, St. Andrews agreement, Stormont, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP | Tagged: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, DUP, General Election, Good Friday Agreement, Hatfield House, Ideology, Mark Durkan, Nationalism, Normal Politics, Northern ireland, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, Political Ideology, Power Sharing, SDLP, Sir Reg. Empey, St. Andrews agreement, Stormont, Tory-UUP linkup, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP | 8 Comments »