The Conservative Party has held a presence in Northern Ireland politics since the mid 1980s. It has had very little electoral success. One of the reasons for that was a failure by Conservative Leadership to direct resources to enable its Northern Ireland branch to build a political power base. Perhaps it was correct to avoid doing that before the Good Friday Agreement.
In December 2005, David Cameron became the leader of the Conservative Party. Soon after that, he made public his vision for politics in Northern Ireland. Speaking to the Institute of Directors in October 2006, he said this:
“I want politics in Northern Ireland to be about the real things – schools, hospitals, tax…not about timetables, deadlines and institutional arrangements. And I want the Conservative Party to be a part of that new politics. We’re moving in a new direction. Leading the debate. Pulling ahead of a tired Government. Developing policies for the future. In doing so, one thing is certain. My Party’s commitment to Northern Ireland, and to all its people, will be whole hearted and unshakeable.”
David Cameron’s speech epitomised what Northern Ireland Conservatives have always wanted – normal politics in Northern Ireland. One of the steps necessary to achieving that objective is to move Northern Ireland away from its semi-detached status by giving its people a say in who will form the next National Government.
Very soon, we will have a General Election and the first part of David Cameron’s objective will have been achieved. I say “first part” not just because the Labour Party are not yet here but because Mr. Cameron was not just talking about tax. In a clear reference to devolved powers and the Northern Ireland Assembly, he also mentioned schools and hospitals. Furthermore, his reference to “real things” and “not about timetables, deadlines and institutional arrangements” was a clear indication of his desire for an end to sectarian politics.
Not all Northern Conservatives agree that being in partnership with the UUP was the right way to pursue David Cameron’s vision.
Some in our party have argued, not without considerable force, that the UUP is not a party which is capable of moving away from sectarian politics. It has also been argued, again not without considerable force, that the Conservatives are not capable of winning Parliamentary seats or building up a significant power base in Northern Ireland without a partnership with one of the leading Unionist parties. If you agree with both of those viewpoints, then you will have reached a conclusion that there was never anything the Conservatives could have done to bring about normal politics in Northern Ireland. I am one of those that dont agree with either argument.
To borrow an old cliché, there is no such thing as a free lunch in the jungle. Whichever path the Conservative party chose to work for normal politics in Northern Ireland, there was always going to be a lot of hard work with many hazards and very little electoral reward in the short term.
The path chosen by the Conservatives was the link-up with the UUP. After much thought and agonising on this subject, I eventually concluded that it was the right route to take even though there is no certainty that the pact will survive after the General Election.
The UUP have considerable obstacles to overcome in moving away from sectarian politics. Within the last couple of months, the UUP has been lampooned for its equivocation in relation to making deals with the DUP to promote unionist “unity” candidates. From an electoral tactical point of view, this equivocation has been rightly described as a missed opportunity to gain the ascendancy over the DUP during its weakest moment during the Christmas period. The positive aspect to this struggle is that, in the end, the UUP came down firmly and unequivocally in favour of the pact with the Conservatives. For those of us who have charted the progress of the UUP, this is the sort of struggle which goes with the territory, whenever a party is evolving. There will be further struggles ahead.
Yesterday, the UUP voted against the transfer of powers for Police and Justice. In my opinion, this was an error of judgment which will have much more of an impact on their political fortunes than their decision to hold talks with the DUP over unionist unity. Within the Unionist community, there is a majority who would have supported the transfer of P & J from at least a pragmatic point of view. Peter Robinson and his party will not have taken lightly their decision to support the transfer of powers. Unfortunately for the UUP, the DUP have “read the tealeaves” correctly and the UUP have not.
Even more damaging to the UUP is the prospect that Unionist voters will no longer consider them to be the moderate voice of Unionism as compared with that of the DUP. That makes it much more difficult for the UUP to distinguish itself from the DUP as the party of civic unionism.
It will also make it much more difficult for the Conservatives to justify a future partnership with the UUP after the General Election. Pressure will undoubtedly grow within the Conservative Party not to enter into any further pact.
I am one of those who would not wish to rule out further pacts or even a merger between the Conservatives and the UUP. For one thing, the latter has many moderate civic unionists within it who could yet rise to the top. If failure in the next Assembly Elections is the price that brings that about, it could very well be a price worth paying.
Meanwhile, we in the Conservative Party should be patient. We must allow time and space for the UUP to continue their evolution. We should commit ourselves to working in partnership with the UUP at least until beyond the next Assembly Elections. Above all, we need to remind ourselves that one of our aims is to influence the Unionist community towards our way of thinking. We are much more likely to do that in a partnership with the UUP than outside it. We must put any immediate prospect of dumping the UUP out of our minds.
Filed under: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, David Cameron, DUP, General Election, Good Friday Agreement, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Peter Robinson, Police and Justice, Power Sharing, sectarianism, Sir Reg. Empey, taxation, UCUNF, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | Tagged: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Conservativism, David Cameron, Devolution, DUP, Economy, General Election, Good Friday Agreement, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Peter Robinson, Police and Justice, Power Sharing, sectarianism, Sir Reg. Empey, Stormont, taxation, Tory-UUP linkup, UCUNF, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | 13 Comments »