Month: December 2008

Constructive Unionism

The Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party are to work together.

The two parties, and they are still two parties, have reached an accommodation. Vice-Chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Jeff Peel, provided some insight to Conservative thinking behind the arrangement on the regional Politics Show. The desire to create a new political space, offering the electorate something that is not based on the nationalist/unionist them/us equation, is to be applauded.

Alex Kane writes in the News Letter about the ‘pact’ from an Ulster Unionist viewpoint. It is interesting that the word ‘agreement’ never appears. Yes, the two parties have ‘agreed closer cooperation’ (conditional agreement). But the words used to describe the status of the new arrangement are many and varied: pact; links; relationship, albeit ‘mutually beneficial’; project, electoral vehicle; or electoral force.

The arrangement reached between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists does appear to be constructively ambiguous. While both Parties are able to talk about going forward together, they remain distinctly independent. Each, however, must anticipate some gains in this arrangement to be prepared to at least look as if they are in some way co-joined.

For the Ulster Unionist Party the benefit may be more immediate. The proof of a policy is in its appeal to the electorate and the first election to test the Conservative/UUP arrangement will be Europe in 2009. It must be expected that the Conservatives will provide both finance and electoral expertise – both in short supply around the UUP – to support the candidacy of Jim Nicholson, the current UUP MEP. It will be important that Jim Nicholson is able to record at least an improved vote on the last election, even if he remains the unionist electorate’s second choice. For Nicholson to be third behind the other sitting unionist (ex-DUP) MEP, Jim Alistair, would be catastrophic for the UUP and represent a setback for the new arrangement.

It must also please the UUP that the arrangement seems to have upset the DUP: though why it matters to the larger party (by electoral vote) is unclear. So what if a youngish, intelligent, financially strong Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has saddled itself with an aging, cliquish and financially embarrassed UUP? Where is the threat to the DUP?

From the detail that is available on the new Conservative/UUP arrangement there is nothing to suggest that it will make a great deal of difference to the electoral map. It is fair to say that for Europe, that all-important first test, Jim Nicholson is going to be old wine in a new bottle; hardly a challenge for the DUP. The DUP remains the largest Party at Westminster, and none of their seats appears to be vulnerable to another unionist Party. The present political state of Britain suggests that the election may be closer than it would have been six months ago and the nine DUP seats may ultimately matter more to the Conservative Party than the one UUP seat in North Down.

A temporary halt to UUP electoral decline, with a fair wind and some new blood presented to the electorate, should be expected from the Conservative/UUP arrangement That, however, would be enough for the Conservatives nationally. The declaration of intent to stand a candidate in every constituency in the country is not just political hubris. Should David Cameron’s Conservatives win the next election, as they are expected to do, it will be a very English victory. Understanding the weakness of a national government with only a handful of representatives outside of England in devolved jurisdictions, the fallback will be that the Conservatives stood in every seat.

While not winning a great many seats in the first past the post contests, a mandate of sorts might be presumed from an increased vote, or at least a substantial vote in all parts of the United Kingdom. If Labour lose votes, even if the Conservative Party gain few, it could be expected that the Conservatives could achieve 15%-18% in of he vote in Scotland, 20%-25% in Wales and with the UU arrangement between 15%-20% in Northern Ireland. Respectable.

As David Shiels points out in the Belfast Telegraph the position plays well with the grassroots of the Conservative Party. The play will also provide a positive to balance with elements of the broader and very necessary Cameronian modernisation that may not have played so well with the grassroots. This is not to say that David Cameron is not genuine in wishing to embed ‘unionism’ as a fundamental value within the Conservative Party. The time spent by Cameron and his colleagues in supporting the process to arrive at the current arrangement with the UUP does not suggest that this is a mere sideshow in some bigger political game plan.

Doubts about the arrangement only arise because it hardly seems final. It is an arrangement that lacks a sense of fundamental shift. Where is the seismic shake to the body politic? The announcement hardly generated a sense of excitement that would radically alter the political landscape.

Shifts in electoral allegiances in Northern Ireland tend to happen as a consequence of something significant happening in the wider political arena. The Maze IRA hunger strikes gave Sinn Fein its entry to the political scene. The Belfast Agreement resulted in the Ulster Unionist vote being eroded over time by the DUP. Nothing has happened to make the Conservative/UU arrangement seem particularly relevant to where Northern Ireland politics stands today, or anytime soon.

David Cameron will come to Belfast for Ulster Unionist Conference on the 6th December. It is the same weekend that commemorates the Shutting of the Gates in Londonderry. Will Cameron be able to inspire the electorate with a vision of a new constructive Unionism that will result in electoral success for the new arrangement. Or will the electorate decide that for now ‘safety’ lies behind the familiar and safe walls, biding their time to see which way the wind blows.