The Ulster Unionist Party and Conservative Party will talk on a more formal basis about the potential for a structured formal relationship at some point in the future.
David Cameron’s timing in the countdown to an election within the next eighteen months is entirely right. Whatever the outcome of the talks that are due to start later in the year, any output from those discussions would be at least a further year or two before anything concrete would be in place. This places the Tories being more than an English party, and a leadership with a Unionist position.
Doing something that practically articulates the Union is in stark contrast to Gordon Brown’s inability to articulate a vision on ‘Britishness’ that the Prime Minister sought to make his own. David Cameron may be doing little more than talk at this point, but he has clearly stolen another political march Labour.
For the Ulster Unionist Party there is nothing wrong with talking. Being able to engage with a political ‘winner’, as David Cameron increasingly appears to be, is a positive step for the Ulster Unionists. Furthermore, it draws a stark contrast with the modern Conservative message of liberal social and economic policy that contrasts abruptly with Iris Robinson.
DUP comment to the joint announcement of mutual interests by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey seemed sulky. The short term benefits of saving Gordon Brown in the House of Commons is fine if those benefits are clear, certain and immediate. The DUP says there was no deal, which means they have upset the people who might well be in charge within eighteen months and gained nothing. Maybe they’ve just realised their error?
Nor, with Iris Robinson’s recent outbursts, could the Conservative Party even think about talking in the same way to the DUP as they intend to do with the Ulster Unionists.That is not to say that the lines are clear.Jeffrey Donaldson built a positive relationship with many Conservative MPs while an Ulster Unionist and no doubt has carried those over to the DUP.Such relationships are built on being personable as well as politic, though there is no doubt a meeting of minds to make such relationships endure.
Others in the DUP might be less keen on building such relationships. Equally, some in the Ulster Unionists might be wondering where a formal link to the Conservative Party might leave them, particularly in the absence of an active or coherent Labour movement in Northern Ireland.
On the face of it, the announcement of the intention to talk can do no harm in itself. Others, however, might look at the ground on which those talks are built. The common ground is a good place to start. The only point of reference we have on this is the Daily Telegraph article from which two points immediately arise.
First there is the quick gloss over history. True, the Conservatives have links to Irish Unionism back to the late 19th Century. If a week is a long time in politics then we can expect considerable change over 120 years. More recent history shows scant regard for Unionist sensibilities and principle by the three most recent Conservative Prime Ministers. Name the Conservative Secretary of State for whom Unionists have a kind word?
Would David Cameron any different? The Anglo-Irish Agreement came at a time when inside the Unionist Party there was a firm belief that relationships with the Conservative Party were improving and that the Union was safe with Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, it was the grassroots of the Conservative Party, against the wishes of the Party Leadership, who demanded Conservative organisation in Northern Ireland.
Second, it is declared that the Conservative Party ‘supports the devolution settlement’.It is not clear whether this means that the Conservative Party accepts that there will be devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or that it sees the Good Friday Agreement as a ‘settlement’.There is wriggle room in the ambiguity of the wording, to cover Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland.That suits David Cameron.
If the reference to devolved settlement is a confirmation of Conservative Party endorsement of devolved government in the UK, it is a clever political move by David Cameron. Again, the Telegraph announcement serves the purposes of making a broader policy statement of how his leadership and thinking is shaping the Conservative Party. Effectively, the Conservative Party will act locally within a universal framework defined by either policy or principle.
On the other hand, David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey may be saying that the Good Friday Agreement is written in stone and that this is the devolution settlement, end of story. Its hard to see this would be the case, given that Sir Reg Empey has spent much of the summer pointing out that the Executive government is not working.Nor is the present Executive Government in anyway accountable or democratic in a ‘normal’ sense of the word.The electorate cannot vote out the government – shuffle the cards, yes, change the pack, no.
It is the lack of normality in the political process that undermines the key proposition of the Daily Telegraph piece.The entire piece is centred on the opportunity for ‘normal’ politics.Confirming belief in a settlement that entrenches sectarian politics is hardly a foundation on which to build a ‘normal’ future. It remains to be seen if the working party to be established continues to gloss over inconvenient history and current realities, or starts by addressing the democratic deficit and real policy issues that will make a ‘normal’ body politic reasonably possible.
Whether or not the working party of Conservatives and Ulster Unionists will find a mutually beneficial way forward remains to be seen. More later. For now, David Cameron has achieved a positive outcome already and anything more is win win. Sir Reg Empey has a short term gain of grabbing some media attention and being seen to be taken seriously by a big national player. However, failure to progress these tentative first steps will be viewed as retrograde. It makes no difference to David Cameron, who has already made his points. For Sir Reg Empey, the stakes are higher.