It was hard enough to achieve Conservative Party organisation in Northern Ireland in the first instance, back in the 1980s. Central office was hostile, and much of the Party leadership at best reluctant to become involved in the region. On the ground it might have seemed mad to set up Conservative branches in Northern Ireland at the end of 10 years of Thatcher Government and in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There was also an Ulster Unionist Party which was dominant within the unionist electorate and, despite the recent history, remained on friendly terms with Conservatives generally at senior levels and in Parliament.
Despite the turmoil, naysayers, hostility and challenges, the determination of those early pioneers of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland gained Council seats and had a reasonable stab at the North Down Westminster seat.
Fast forward thirty years and we find a Central Office bending over backwards to be helpful, a Party leader (now Prime Minister) who visits, espouses unionism, and encourages the local Party to be local and relevant to Northern Ireland.
Some local Conservatives, however, think the Conservative brand is bad and that is why they ended with nothing, zip, nadda after three consecutive elections – don’t think they see Jim Nicholson as ‘one of us’ – though some might point to other reasons for the Northern Ireland Conservatives to gain electoral traction.
What has changed?
The 2010 Westminster election is over. While the poll outcome was inconclusive the upshot is a decisive shift in British Politics where a progressive coalition has burst through the liberal centre/right. In the process, there were no important phone calls to the Northern Ireland parties, who now sit on the Parliamentary margins.
The debates on national television provided an energy to the national election. Locally the election campaign was as lacklustre and uninspiring as the Party leaders on the local TV debates.
Perhaps thedissenter should have commented in the run up to, and during, the election in Northern Ireland. But the build up to, and conduct of, the local campaigns was not exactly exciting; business beckoned, a bit of travel to be done, and it was time for a break.
So in retrospect and to bring thedissenter up to date…
Recent events in Northern Ireland have raised the possibility that there may be an Assembly election before a Westminster election. Depending on how current talks at Hillsborough and elsewhere progress, and for other electoral factors, it may not be Sinn Fein that seeks an election either before or at the same time as the Westminster poll.
While generally there is nothing certain about the future, one 99.99% certainty for 2010 is a British Parliamentary Election. Voting must take place before the summer, and the general consensus is for a May poll, though March may still be possible if Gordon Brown wants to avoid an unpromsing budget and go for it.
Picture: parliament.uk picture gallery
The opinion polls are erratic, as discussed on thedissenter earlier, and the potential for a tightly hung Parliament is real. A party holding a small number of seats may gain considerable importance. So the performance of local parties is of national interest: though notional until the counts are complete.