Has the UUP/Tory link hit the rocks?

Is the Conservative Party’s electoral link with the Ulster Unionists about to come to an end? Ed Jacobs reports on the latest developments in Northern Ireland.

Is the Conservative Party’s electoral link with the Ulster Unionists about to come to an end? In 2008, David Cameron announced the pact with the UUP, expressing a desire to see Northern Irish MPs sitting around the cabinet table.

Mr Cameron told the 2008 Tory party conference:

“As things stand, Northern Ireland MPs need to be involved in decisions about their lives that are not devolved. I want the most talented people to form my government and that will mean people from all corners of the UK.

“Why are there great Ulstermen and women on our television screens, in our boardrooms and in our military but not in our Cabinet? The semi-detached status of Northern Ireland politics needs to end. This is not true representative democracy and it has got to change.”

As the first experiment by a mainstream party competing for government to become active participants in Northern Ireland’s electoral system, the move drew criticisms almost from the beginning.

Last year, for example, former Ulster Unionist Party leader John Taylor – now Lord Kilclooney – dubbed the partnership a “mongrel relationship” with the then Northern Ireland secretary, Shaun Woodward, declaring it a “sham marriage”. In the general election, the electoral alliance achieved a total of no seats in the Commons.

Now, however, it seems that the Conservatives are looking to loosen the links between the two parties, with an announcement by Conservative HQ that it would be establishing its own Northern Ireland campaign office to co-ordinate the party’s efforts in May’s local government elections, and led by a senior party director.

In announcing the decision, Tory co-chair Baroness Warsi explained:

“The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has the unequivocal support of the party nationally. Our approach will be one of active engagement – starting with the fielding of candidates in the local council elections in May.”

The move will be music to the ears of those in the Conservative and Unionist establishment in Northern who have remained sceptical about further links between the two parties.

Irwin Armstrong, for example, who in December resigned as chair of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland over his party’s continued alliance with the UUP; he responded:

“I see this as a significant step forward and will be returning as chairman again.”

The news that the Conservatives will seek to run their own local election campaign independently of the UUP comes in the wake of Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson’s refusal to change the rules outlining how first ministers are chosen.

In September, Left Foot Forward reported on efforts, led by the UUP, to change the rules in order to prevent Sinn Fein gaining the position of first minister in the event of them becoming the largest single party after May’s elections to Stormont.

Responding to the decision, UUP leader Tom Elliott concluded:

“It is disappointing. We felt it was very important to the people of Northern Ireland to go back to the position of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement requiring cross-community support for the positions. It is about democracy, not about being sectarian.”

If this proves to be the beginning of the end for the UUP/Tory alliance in Northern Ireland one might wonder what exatly it has achieved and what on Earth was the point?

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.