The part played by the Conservative Party in the agreement of Rodney Connor as a compromise unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is by far the most controversial step that the Conservatives have taken since the announcement of the pact with the UUP.
The central question, which I attempt to answer here, is whether it is a step forward or a step backwards in terms of the longer-term Conservative political objectives in Northern ireland. Firstly, what does the deal amount to in practice?
Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a constituency where the Unionist and Nationalist vote is near parity but where Nationalists are in a majority. In the 2005 General Election, the ratio of Nationalists to Unionists was about 53:47 on a turnout of 72.6%. At that election, Sinn Fein polled 18,638 votes with the SDLP polling 7,230 votes. On the Unionist side, the DUP polled 14,056 with the UUP polling 8,869. Projecting current demographic trends, the Unionists are now down to about 45%. A single Unionist candidate could expect to poll in the region of 22,000. For Sinn Fein to win the seat, they would need a swing against the SDLP of approximately 5.5%. The trend of the SDLP losing votes to Sinn Fein appears to have been arrested in the 2009 Euro election. They have also been given a further boost with a fresh candidate in Fergal McKinney. It is therefore highly unlikely that Sinn Fein would win the seat. I would expect a majority for a single Unionist candidate in the region of 2,700.
Rodney Connor is almost certain to win the seat. However, Fermanagh and South Tyrone is just one constituency out of 650. On its own, it would be very unlikely to make any significant difference, even in a hung parliament. This is particularly so when you consider that Sinn Fein, who hold the seat at present, do not take up their seats in Parliament. Is it symbolically important to the Conservatives?
After the European Election, the Conservatives boasted that they had an MEP in every part of the United Kingdom. They would certainly like to be able to claim that on May 7th. Rodney Connor, if elected, will take the Conservative whip. It is, however, only “half a loaf” because Connor will not be campaigning under the Conservative and Unionist banner.
There is little in it, then, from the National perspective. What about the credibility of the Conservatives in terms of their longer term aims Northern Ireland?
Bringing normal politics to Northern Ireland involves setting examples. One thing that the Conservatives always wanted to avoid was a sectarian “carve – up” By avoiding a sectarian carve – up, a message would be sent to the Catholic community that they really were interested in the pursuit of Catholic votes on the basis of shared values, rather than on future constitutional aspiration.
In defence of the arrangement, Conservative and Unionist spin doctors are describing the arrangement as “not ideal” and pointing out that Rodney Connor has genuine cross-community credentials. Unfortunately, that kind of propaganda looks like a fig-leaf to try and cover what is a sectarian carve-up. The almost pathological hatred of Sinn Fein by a very large proportion of the unionist electorate practically guarantees Mr. Connor a free ride. It really is hard to see the deal in any other way.
Mr. Connor is not a UCUNF candidate. He may say that he will take the Conservative whip but he is Independent and can change his mind. He is not strictly bound by party obligation. It would therefore be quite wrong for the Conservatives to be able to claim that the people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone genuinely have the opportunity to vote for the next Government.
For many in the Northern Ireland Conservative party, particularly Jeffrey Peel, the Conservatives have sold their soul and the integrity of the UCUNF project for the price of one constituency in one election. Whatever future efforts are made to bring about normal politics in Northern Ireland, it is not hard to imagine well-intentioned Conservative activists having this deal thrown back in their faces whenever they canvass on a Catholic doorstep. This one is going to be milked for years to come. Disaffected conservatives, like Jeffrey Peel, will lose the will to work for the party in Northern Ireland and it will now be much harder to recruit Catholic members to the party.
I believe that the deal was a huge mistake on the part of the Conservative leadership and one which they will eventually regret. Rodney Connor will get my vote but I will not be casting it with the same excitement and anticipation that I might have done if we had a genuine UCUNF candidate.
My own disappointment with the deal will linger for a while. Eventually, it will pass. I will pick myself up again but I will never attempt to justify what has happened.
Filed under: Conservative Party, Conservativism, David Cameron, DUP, Michelle Gildernew, Northern Ireland politics, Rodney Connor, SDLP, sectarianism, Sinn Fein, Symbolism, UCUNF, UK Parliament, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | Tagged: Conservative Party, Conservativism, David Cameron, DUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, General Election, Michelle Gildernew, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Rodney Connor, SDLP, sectarianism, Sinn Fein, Symbolism, Tory-UUP linkup, UCUNF, UK Parliament, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | 6 Comments »