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.
The idea of the Big Society has certainly grabbed attention and excited a great deal of comment and debate; not always flattering though not exclusively negative.
It is hard to imagine where the idea of the Big Society might lead when the root of the idea is so unclear. Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome, while making every effort to be supportive, manages to only draw attention to the fluffy nature of the thinking around what is presented as David Cameron’s big idea.
There is the sense of things not being quite right when a speech on the subject is heralded in the press as the fourth ‘re-launch’. Once a product fails in the market, the product needs reinvention, not just the message.
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.
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.
In his speech to the recent Traditional Unionist Voice conference, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, Robert McCartney, focused on the underlying conflict at the heart of the education debate in Northern Ireland.
Conservative policy generally seems to be one of practicality over principle, which would also seem to sum up David Cameron’s approach to most issues. Just as the new Conservative group in the European Parliament probably has more to do with domestic Party necessity than usefully making friends and influencing people (thedissenter), the Cameron policy of offering a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is similarly practical.
Electorally, the Conservatives need a substantial swing to ensure a majority. UKPollingReport provides a fun way of keeping in touch with what the latest poll means with a simple swing calculator. A simple exercise on this swingometer shows the volatility of the electorate, and the electoral challenge that faces the Conservatives until May 2010.
This graph was grabbed on the 6th October.
The final outcome of the Northern Ireland European Election poll is not that much different to that anticipated by thedissenter in early May. Even so, the election has has the potential to shake the consensus on which the Belfast Agreement stands or falls. It was a better than expected election for Jim Allister of the TUV.
The UUP presents its link with the Conservative Party as a way of being at the centre of UK politics. At the same time that link is likely to push the UUP to the margins of Europe.
The UUP alignment with the Conservatives is presented as part of a wider vision for ‘The Union’, and for the UUP to be at the centre of national discourse. As we edge towards the European Election, should Jim Nicholson win one of the three Northern Ireland seats he will return to Europe as part of a Conservative led group at the margins of European discourse.
The sole Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Westminster MP Lady Sylvia Hermon finally, publicly, confirmed the widely held belief that she is unhappy with the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force (UCUNF). Following a BBC interview, the Belfast Telegraph has followed through with a series of points on which her disquiet may be founded: