Month: August 2008

Local spat is convenient distraction

The Ulster Unionists in Fermanagh questioned the proposed co-option of a DUP nominee to replace a recently deceased DUP member of the Council. The point appeared to be a fair one. The Ulster Unionist concern rested on the nominee being a student, studying in Belfast. In a council were votes count, it is not unreasonable to desire a councillor who is more readily available to attend to council duties.

More cynically, however, the Ulster Unionists also may have sensed a chance to pick up a seat at the DUP’s expense. Without consensus, a by-election is to be held.

The DUP had every right to make its own choice of nominee for co-option. The Party is also to be commended for putting forward a young person who would gain valuable experience of political life, even in the small world of Northern Ireland local government.

Shame then that once the Ulster Unionists had forced a by-election the young man was unceremoniously dropped. The by-election candidate is to be Arlene Foster, a popular local politician and current Minister in Northern Ireland’s Stormont administration. An ex-Ulster Unionist, Mrs Foster is likely to be the DUP standard bearer for Westminster when a General Election is called sooner or later.

The DUP would be credited with some principle had they stuck by their nominee in the face of a by-election. That the DUP lacks the confidence in the electability of their nominee in an open contest makes the Ulster Unionists look as if they had a point in challenging the simple co-option.

In not running a candidate, the only Party to score a positive political point is the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). TUV points to the UUP and DUP spat as an ‘unseemly dispute’ and the by-election as a ‘venture capable of strengthening Sinn Fein’. The by-election result will tell.
Leaving Fermanagh, a wider perspective might consider the actions of the DUP showing deep uncertainty in its forward path. Bringing in a big hitter for the role may prove a winning tactic, but it lacks longer-term strategy. Mrs Foster is not just seeking a dual mandate, her Party’s ambition would have her hold three political roles.

Along with its own established heavy-hitters, the defection of a small number of high profile and electable Ulster Unionists (of which Mrs Foster is one) has provided the DUP with a near monopoly of political personalities within Unionism. With little political difference between the DUP and UUP this matters greatly. The move by the UUP to create ties with the Conservatives may be an effort to seek some differentiation, but little on the main point of sharing power with Sinn Fein etc: tactical nuances rather than any points of principle separate the two.

The reliance on personalities is not a Northern Irish phenomenon. Mick Hume in spiked identifies an international trend: “we are entering an era, not of two- or even multi-party politics, so much as no-party politics.” In this context, personalities matter. Hume also points to the downside of this for political life: “As the gap between the public and the political class widens, political loyalties become more arbitrary and uncertain.” Northern Ireland is not immune to such trends.

Add the volatility and uncertainty of unionist unease at Sinn Fein in Government and it is easy to see why the DUP places reliance on personality over principle. The DUP is not strong enough to proceed with any candidate in Fermanagh at a local council level; it must use the political capital of the popular Mrs Foster.

The spat between the DUP and UUP on the rights and wrongs of a by-election is a distraction from the fact that there is little to separate the two parties. Neither is currently addressing the considerable unease among unionists on the subject of transfer of policing and justice responsibilities from Westminster to the local administration.

In the short term the continued reliance on big personality may deliver another win for the DUP. But being big is not enough in an arbitrary and uncertain political world. Winning is good; but winning comes with a price. While the two main Unionist Parties squabble, the question being increasingly asked by unionists is ‘who’s paying?’

Right message?

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.