Ed Jacobs examines the prospects for the UUP and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland following the failure of their electoral pact.
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Conservative Party co-chairman, Lord Feldman has accused the Ulster Unionists of making a “mistake” in rejecting proposals for their two parties to merge.
In 2008, the then UUP Leader, Reg Empey and David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives called for closer co-operation between their two parties, culminating in the decision to field joint candidates in the 2010 general election.
Having failed to win any seats and having seen the UUP’s only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon resign in protest at the pact and subsequently re-elected as an independent it was a disastrous project.
However, at the time of the Conservative party conference last year it was reported that Cameron was once again seeking greater co-operation and integration between Conservatives and the UUP, culminating in Lord Feldman writing to UUP Leader, Tom Elliott in November to suggest his party disband to be consumed into a new, Conservative-led organisation in Northern Ireland.
In his formal response, published just before Christmas however, Elliott made clear his opposition to the move. Speaking of his party remaining committed to strengthening Northern Ireland’s position within the union, he went on to argue:
“To the furtherance of these objectives the party officers and I were prepared to ask our party executive to formalise our relationship with the Conservative Party, on terms which we believed would have been mutually beneficial, but there is no way I am prepared to recommend your proposals to dismantle 106 years of achievement – to dissolve our great party to become the Northern Ireland Conservative Party who have consistently failed in the last 40 years to gain any electoral credibility.
“This would have been a betrayal of the 100,000 voters who placed their trust in the UUP in May and quite simply would only have led to yet a further split in unionism, something I know the pro-Union electorate don’t want.
“I understand your rationale for wishing to wind up the Northern Ireland Conservatives as they have proved to be an electoral non-entity.”
Having used an article for the Belfast Telegraph to dub Elliott’s stance a “mistake”, Feldman has despite the UUP’s objections, outlined his and David Cameron’s determination to bring Northern Ireland into the mainstream of UK and Conservative politics, explaining:
“The Prime Minister has asked me to continue to move forward in our mission to deliver mainstream, national politics to the people of Northern Ireland, beginning in the New Year.
“Our ambition in all of this remains the same. We are stalwart and proud supporters of the Union. As Conservatives, it’s in our DNA.
“But there is an urgent need to take pro-Union politics to the next stage.
“For centuries, Northern Irish people have helped make the United Kingdom a success on the world stage. But today, as we face enormous global challenges in our economy and new powers emerging in international politics, too often, Northern Ireland largely exists outside the mainstream of UK politics.
“Why is it we have great men and women from Northern Ireland at the top in the media, sport, the arts and the military yet nobody from Northern Ireland sits in the UK government?
“Our new approach will, we hope, put Northern Ireland back at the centre of national politics. It will mean a straight line flows from the local council chamber through to the Cabinet Table.”
Despite Tom Elliott’s declaration on UTV however that the offer from the Conservatives was simply “not acceptable” to him or his party, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Devenport has hinted that the lure of Tory money might eventually prove too tempting for the UPP to reject. Writing on his blog he explains:
“The benefit of banishing the ghost of “UCUNF” is that, over time, the Ulster Unionists might feel less bound to defend unpopular Tory policies emanating from London. The downside is that they will lose a valuable source of financial support for fighting future elections.
“If they are more cash strapped, the Ulster Unionists may find it increasingly hard to relinquish the rewards of ministerial office at Stormont.
“Although some commentators believe the UUP should embrace opposition, such a course of action is easier when you have a friend with deep pockets.”
As David Cameron now re-considers a move into the party politics of Northern Ireland, he could do well to remember the disastrous performance the Tory/UUP pact had during the 2010 General Election and the divisions evident for all to see within his own party and the UUP.
In March 2010, Left Foot Forward reported on the dubbing as a “mongrel relationship” of the pact by the former UUP Deputy Leader, Lord Kilclooney and the declaration by the then Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, Patrick, now Lord, Cormack that the relationship looked “odd” and “inconsistent”.
At all points, Cameron must be conscious of the need to maintain an air of neutrality.
When, as will at some stage, the next crisis strikes Northern Ireland it is vital that the British prime minister can command the confidence of all sides. By dipping his toes into the murky waters of Northern Irish politics Cameron risks loosing his ability to act as an independent arbitrator and deal broker when things go wrong.
As Conor McGinn, chair of the Labour Party Irish Society has previously concluded in Progress, writing on the then UPP/Conservative link, it had and was ultimately proven to be “an albatross around Cameron’s neck.” For Cameron and the Tory high command the danger is that albatross comes back to haunt them.
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• How does Northern Ireland achieve reconciliation in 2012? – Ed Jacobs, January 3rd 2012
• Preview 2012 – Northern Ireland – Ed Jacobs, December 30th 2011
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• Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland savage Cameron’s anti-EU strategy – Ed Jacobs, December 12th 2011
• Osborne’s cuts having “damaging effect” on Northern Ireland peace process – Kevin Meagher, November 10th 2011