Ed Jacobs assesses whether David Cameron’s decision to launch a Conservative party in Northern Ireland is the right move for the country and the Union.
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Since the announcement in 2008 that the UUP and Conservatives would look to form closer links with each other, David Cameron has made it a mission to enter the world of electoral politics in Northern Ireland in a belief that a truly unionist party needed to contest elections in every part of the country.
In 2010, the electoral pact between the parties was a disaster to say the least, leading as it did to the resignation of the UUP’s only MP in Westminster, Lady Sylvia Hermon, in protest.
Indeed, at the time, former UUP deputy leader John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney, declared, somewhat unflatteringly, the partnerships to be akin to a “mongrel relationship” whilst the then Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Patrick (now Lord) Cormack, dubbed it “odd” and “inconsistent”.
Having had advances to re-establish a pact rejected by UUP leader Tom Elliott, the Conservatives have instead decided to go it alone and establish a Conservative party in Northern Ireland completely separately of any other party.
Announcing the plans, the party’s co-chairman Lord Feldman declared:
“For too long politics in Northern Ireland have been built around sectarianism and division. We want to move past the politics of the peace process to a more normal state of affairs where everyone in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to vote for a modern, centre-right, pro-Union party.
“This new political party won’t be encumbered by the conflict and divisions of Northern Ireland’s past. We want to reach out to everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of their background.”
On the face of it, at a time when the debate over Scottish independence rages on, the idea of bringing Northern Ireland out from the cold and into the mainstream of UK politics might seem appealing to unionists. Dig deeper, however and it’s not hard to realise how difficult a move it could be.
Firstly, how can David Cameron ever now hope to be able to act as an independent arbiter in Northern Ireland politics when he will now have his own electoral chances to consider?
As shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, has argued:
“The Conservative party in Northern Ireland has been relaunched more times than the Big Society.
Instead of prioritising their party’s self-serving misadventures in Northern Ireland, the prime minister and the Secretary of State should concentrate on meeting their responsibilities to help secure the peace process and build a shared future.”
Secondly, it has to be questioned how timely the move is for the Conservatives to be entering the world of Northern Ireland politics at the exact same time as even Tom Elliott himself has admitted that he is exploring how the DUP and UUP can better co-operate to give unionism in Northern Ireland a stronger voice. What role does the Conservative Party have to play in this?
Indeed, given their accusations that the proposed boundary changes in Northern Ireland, spearheaded by the Conservatives, amount to “gerrymandering”, the DUP will not be in any mood to give Cameron et al an easy ride.
And finally, just how new is the proposal? As former UUP staffer, Michael Shilliday, has observed on the Slugger O’Toole blog:
“Let’s be clear, there is to be no “new party” in Northern Ireland. They are not farming off their existing branch, they are attempting to tart it up a bit. And what are these momentous changes? They MIGHT get a seat on the Conservative party board (hardly a sign of a new party is it?), they MIGHT be allowed to elect a leader, and they will be allowed to have a Chairman (so what has Irwin Armstrong been doing all this time?)
“It all begs the question, what is the point? It sounds a bit like they will attract a few failed UUP candidates, but is that together with some semantic dressing up really going to turn an electorally insignificant and utterly failed group into the vanguard for liberal Unionism?
“The Conservative party has no hope in Northern Ireland without an existing local base, the best fit being the UUP. The UUP is visionless and increasingly rudderless without the Conservative party (the real one that is, not what passes for it in Northern Ireland). Seems obvious what to do really.”
With the UUP having made crystal clear that it cannot foresee a new electoral pact with the Conservatives, Cameron’s foray into the world of Northern Ireland’s politics is the wrong move at the wrong time.
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• Tories and UUP split over merger deal – Ed Jacobs, January 5th 2012
• Has the UUP/Tory link hit the rocks? – Ed Jacobs, February 3rd 2011
• Northern Ireland: The challenges facing Mr Cameron – Ed Jacobs, May 17th 2010
• UUP-Tory alliance a “mongrel relationship” – Ed Jacobs, March 12th 2010
• Cameron accused of “sham marriage” with Ulster Unionists – Ed Jacobs, March 10th 2010