Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point?

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.

See also:

Tories and UUP split over merger dealEd Jacobs, January 5th 2012

Has the UUP/Tory link hit the rocks?Ed Jacobs, February 3rd 2011

Northern Ireland: The challenges facing Mr CameronEd Jacobs, May 17th 2010

UUP-Tory alliance a “mongrel relationship”Ed Jacobs, March 12th 2010

Cameron accused of “sham marriage” with Ulster UnionistsEd Jacobs, March 10th 2010

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19 Responses to “Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point?”

  1. Rich Clare

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point? asks @EdJacobs1985

  2. Patrick

    Socialism in Britain -what’s the point?

  3. Alan199

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point? asks @EdJacobs1985

  4. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point?

  5. Political Planet

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point?: Ed Jacobs assesses whether David Cameron’s decision to la…

  6. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point?

  7. Lizmcshane

    Do they think they are going to have more success this time?

    I think it would be better and it would be more responsible, if The Conservative-led Government in Britain actually engaged more with the First & Deputy First Ministers as far as I understand they have only met once!

  8. BevR

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point? asks @EdJacobs1985

  9. Pulp Ark

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point? #A_Britain_We_All_Call_Home #Conservatives #muslim #tcot #sioa

  10. Newsaccess

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what's the point? – Left Foot Forward

  11. Republycan

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what's the point?: Since the announcement in 2008 that the UUP and Conservat…

  12. Conservative and Unionist

    I’m a Conservative, and this is something that has always interested me. I spoke to a Conservative whip about us in Northern Ireland and he said that it has never been tried. That said, I think this article hits the nail right on the head. I think our best chances are what we did in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and got an ‘Independent Unionist’ candidate who lost by only 4 votes to Sinn Fein. The DUP and UUP were able to agree to an arrangement where we would vote with the Tory Whip for matters of the UK and of foreign policy, but would be free to be independent in matters affecting Northern Ireland. I think that this is the best arrangement. Starting a party in NI would be nigh-on impossible to do. The Tories in NI have like 1 councillor and I doubt they will get much ground there.

    The one point that I would like to challenge is about the electoral chances. We must remember that traditionally, until Sunningdale in 1972, the UUP and previously the Irish Unionists were part of the Conservative Party, and we even had an Irish Unionist Leader of the Opposition in Edward Carson. In the same way, the Labour Party had the NI Labour Party which later became the SDLP. The SDLP still take the Labour whip in Westminster and therefore provide Labour with an additional 3 seats in the House of Commons. Trying to forge an alliance with Northern Irish parties is therefore about redressing the balance.

    Otherwise, a very good and fair article.

  13. BevR

    RT @leftfootfwd: Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what’s the point? #spartacusreport #wrb #unum #atos

  14. Qwerty

    “How can Ed Miliband ever now hope to be able to act as an independent arbiter in Scottish politics when he has his own electoral chances to consider?”

    You lefties just don’t get it do you? We are not talking about the governance of some distant colony. We are talking about an integral part of Britain.

    Would it be absurd to think that the Labour Party should only act as an “independent arbiter” in Scotland and not get involved in its politics? What’s the difference with Northern Ireland then? Come on, do tell.

  15. Ed's Talking Balls

    Variation on a theme: Labour in England – what’s the point?

  16. Alberto Ciani

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what's the point? – Left Foot Forward

  17. Alberto Ciani

    Conservatives in Northern Ireland – what's the point? – Left Foot Forward

  18. Omnishambles hits Northern Ireland as Secretary of State bungles jobs figures | Left Foot Forward

    […] See also: • Conservatives in Northern Ireland: What’s the point? 1 Feb […]

  19. Stan Squires

    I am from Vancouver,Canada and I wanted to say that this election result is a disaster for Northern Ireland.The DUP is an enemy of peace in Northern Ireland and when they unite with the Conservatives that will make things worse.Things can’t get any worse than this in Northern Ireland.

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