Month: May 2009

UUP win/lose with Conservatives in Europe.


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.

Currently the British Conservatives in the European Parliament are closely associated with the European Peoples Party (EPP) and European Democrats (ED), collectively the EPP-ED.  That is to change following the upcoming European Election in June, with David Cameron committed to leaving the EPP-ED.

The EPP is broadly Christian Democrat in nature and very pro-European Union/Unity.  It is also very much dominated by the Germanic view of ‘social market economy’.  It broadly expects others to share that view.  They are more comfortable with ‘social market’ than ‘free market’, more statist than liberal.  The ED is broadly balanced to believe more in the free market than the social market and more liberal than statist.  The groups probably share more in underlying principle than either would credit the other.

Within the EPP, for example, among the Spanish Popular Party and the Swedish Moderates, there are friends to be found for British Conservatives. But the Conservatives are committed to abandoning these natural friends.

Membership of a group brings the strength in numbers that is necessary to wheel and deal for committee places and influence within the Parliament, as much in Europe as in Westminster. Dan Hannan MEP outlines his support of the Conservative decision to break from the EPP. From Dan Hannan’s position, leaving the EPP makes sense. What is not explained is why this can’t be done within the EPP-ED, building coalitions of like-minded liberal-conservatives from the ED base and using the EPP-ED strength to shift policy.

David Cameron has made a considerable effort to present the Conservative Party as a modern, progressive centre-right party committed to restoring economic prosperity, combined with a strong sense of social justice. The ED is expressly committed to democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, national sovereignty, free enterprise, minimal regulation, low taxation, private ownership, respect and security for every individual and a strong transatlantic alliance. What in that commitment is out of step with the Conservative Party manifesto for Europe, or indeed for the UK?

The ED cannot make a difference within the EPP-ED because it has not the seven parties to work from a position of strength: it currently has five parties; the two from UK, the Czech ODS, the Portuguese Popular Party and Italian Pensioners Party.  The Conservative party has committed to finding new allies. Possibly. From eastern Europe? There are plenty; many unstable, few unaligned. There is certainly room to work. Eastern Europeans to the centre right feel abandoned by the larger nations – and voted for a Europe of free nations, not a nation-numbing collective. A strong (small, broad c) conservative vision would perhaps help shape politics on a wider arena, a conservatism beyond Britain – a vision for a European big house, perhaps, built on principle and not Party interests. Not while the British Conservatives allow British domestic politics dictate European engagement: actually, British Conservative house-keeping dictating European engagement.

What is not clear is why the Conservatives have decided to cut themselves off from the major and strong centre-right grouping rather than work from within, and what they have to offer that would be particularly attractive or particularly different from what would be possible building from that ED base.

The Conservative Party is heading off into a political corner with its teddy bear.  The Party has reached this point after years of neglect in international relations. While taking part in structures such as the old European Democrat Union (EDU) and International Democrat Union (IDU) the Conservative engagement was at best perfuctory – by default rather than design. True, engagement at IDU level with our American friends was undertaken with greater enthusiasm, though little more purpose. But at Euro level there was always exasperation and confusion as to what it was all about.

International relations in the Conservative Party was most often left to enthusiastic individuals, who threw their heart and soul into carving a relevant and significant place for the Party internationally. But more often than not they were left alone, and without a respected Party role.

The Germans with their powerful Stifung (foundations) and the Swedes with a fundamental commitment to international relations bring purpose to all their European activities and engage in a structured and measured way at all levels from youth through to senior Party activity. Against this, Conservative functionality in engagement meant it often looked out of place or out of step with European colleagues because it was defracted and half-hearted.  Current policy will appear to Europeans as churlish and pointless.

Whether or not the Conservative Party is associated with the EPP would not have been relevant to Northern Ireland’s European vote without the recent Conservative/UUP link-up.  Jim Nicholson made a point in his News Letter web chat that he had “been elected by other MEP colleagues during the last five years to sit on the bureau of the Parliament.” This is in no small part a consequence of his long standing association with the EPP.  What happens when he exits from that group?

Through the Conservative link, the representation in Europe will be significantly weakened as the Conservatives group, UUP in tow, go off to do its own thing. That matters. With Nicholson elected it will mean that none of the MEPS will be part of a significant group – though the EPP could be practical enough to make offers to either Diane Dodds or Jim Allister to retain a British component in its group.   But as it seems likely, all Northern Ireland MEPs would be linked to marginal groups, or be independent.  The strength of connections to major political groups, and the centres of influence that these represent, will be lost completely.

No matter how much the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists promote their link as strengthening the Union, in Europe it will inevitably result in a reduction in Unionist influence. While many Conservatives believe that Europe doesn’t matter, that attitude is something Northern Ireland can ill afford.

Lady Sylvia Herman expresses doubts.


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:

• She feels she was excluded from all discussions about the possibility of a link-up between the parties, despite being their only Westminster politician.

• She was left to discover the dramatic changes in a shop where she spotted the newspaper headlines.

• She has been hauled in (thedissenter emphasis) for meetings with Tory heavy-hitters including Ken Clarke, as well as for talks with David Cameron, flanked (thedissenter emphasis) by the party’s Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson, and Andrew MacKay, a former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

To these is added her general feeling that the Conservatives have little understanding of Ulster politics. Having listened to a number of presentations by Conservatives in Northern Ireland over the past months that is something that has some resonance with thedissenter.

Print journalists use language to emphasise points or to communicate emotion. thedissenter emphasis in the final point above, suggests that meetings with Sylvia to address ‘issues’ were less of a round table and more of a telling off – serious men telling off a silly woman who should only be impressed at meeting Ken Clarke, David Cameron, Own Patterson and (er) Andrew McKay; men of such importance, she must surely have been impressed.

But why does Sylvia speak now? Perhaps it was the simple opportunity; a radio interview on expenses developed onto other topics, as they do. However, a simple answer that suggested she had had a lot on her mind recently and was still taking time to consider the issue would have stopped the new line of questioning in its tracks.

The opaque nature of all the UCUNF deliberations makes it impossible to know exactly what has happened, or is going on, in the background. For certain, Sylvia has always been an Ulster Unionist. It is a heartfelt statement when she says “If my party chooses to move to call themselves by a different name, I’m terribly sorry and terribly disappointed by that but I remain an Ulster Unionist.” Surely in discussions the emotion of her position would have been recognised – though the apparent tenor of the meetings suggests not; the Conservatives talked, but maybe they didn’t listen.

Perhaps though it was Sylvia’s legal eye that made her snap into being perpared to make her position known. It has been suggested that Sylvia may have been upset at the sight of the very Conservative (in line with UK-wide format) Jim Nicholson Conservative and Unionist election posters that expunge the Ulster Unionist connection. How much more would she be upset at the first of the Jim Nicholson election material. In the small print, to the bottom right of the SURVEY on the leaflet, is a Data Protection declaration. Here it is clear that the information being provided is for the benefit of the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party alone: because as there are still two parties as Sir Reg keeps repeating, the information cannot be passed onto a third party (UUP).

Hardly an example of an equal, sharing, partnership.

In all aspects of the UCUNF collaboration Sylvia may simply be concerned at the imbalance of the relationship between the two parties. As her emotions are in the frame, perhaps it is instinct that is telling her this deal is fundamentally wrong. Sure, the Conservative money to fund this election is very welcome to a cash strapped UUP; a lifeline. Sylvia may well be right in questioning a Conservative lifeline that is ever so loosely tied around the neck of the UUP, for now.

Interest in the Northern Ireland Euro poll may be on who votes rather than who is elected.

Nominations open and posters appearing, an election is looming, so its time to take a view on the next few weeks of political cut and thrust, or not. There is not much excitement around a European election.

So looking forward (and that is said with all the enthusiasm mustered, which is not that great) the outcome of the vote for the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament, June 2009, is unlikely to deliver an electoral surprise. It is probable that the same three Parties will win the seats. That doesn’t mean that the voting spread won’t be of political interest; the biggest story may well be the decline in number of people being bothered to vote.


There are three seats up for grabs under the proportional representation system used for the Northern Ireland. These are currently held by Jim Allister, elected under the DUP banner and topping the poll in 2004, Barbre de Brun, Sinn Fein, 2nd highest vote, and Jim Nicholson, UUP, 3rd and elected on final transfers.

A Province-wide campaign is a challenge to all but the larger Parties. This means that, unusually for Northern Ireland, there are relatively few candidates: just seven in the 2004 European election. The Alliance Party, Labour and the Conservative Party threw their lot behind independent John Gilliland.

In 2004, the first count results were as follows:

Jim Allister (DUP) 175,761 (32.0%) up 3.6%; elected on first count.
Bairbre De Brun (SF) 144,541 (26.3%) up 9.0%; elected on first count.
Jim Nicholson (UUP) 91,164 (16.6%) down 1.0%.
Martin Morgan (SDLP) 87,559 (15.9%) down12.1%.
John Gilliland (Independent) 36,270 (6.6%).
Eamonn McCann (SEA) 9,172 (1.6%).
Lindsay Whitcroft (Green) 4,810 (0.9%).

In percentage terms the 2004 parties’ vote was almost the same in the 2007 Assembly elections. However, like for like, the 2004 European Elections saw a decline in the overall vote of around 20% from the 1999 Euro poll. While the DUP topped the poll in both instances, its vote was down around 20,000 in 2004 compared to 1999. The decline in the total unionist vote was about 75,000. Although the Sinn Fein vote was up around 27,000 the big loser was the SDLP whose vote crashed by more than half from the 190,000 votes for John Hume. The great uncertainty in the upcoming election is the extent to which the overall vote might decline and how the spread of that decline will impact on each Party – it is a factor that both unionist and nationalist parties will fear, equally.

There’s no agreed independent candidate this time. The Alliance Party has selected Ian Parsley, a young candidate who is being offered some profile, no doubt with a longer term view of election in the North Down area. In 1999 the Alliance vote was less than 15,000; the same or more would be a huge success for Alliance.

The SDLP selection of Alban Maginness seems to be a pitch for the old traditional middle class vote. Maginness is better known than Martin Morgan, the considerably younger 2004 candidate. There is nothing new to ‘bring back’ voters. The greatest threat to the SDLP is a further decline in their vote: if the SDLP can hold its vote from 2005 it would be happy.

Jim Nicholson is once again standing for the Ulster Unionist Party. The Conservative Party, with which the Ulster Unionists are now aligned, is unlikely to bring many votes. Any small increase in the UUP vote is more likely to be from some middle class Catholic voters who are unhappy with nationalist parties’ support for the end of academic selection.

No doubt Nicholson’s seat will only be secured with the transfer of votes from Jim Allister, now standing for Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The UUP will hope that the number of transfers might make the final vote ‘close’ and attempt to use this to vindicate its Conservative alliance. That would be wrong. Transfers to the UUP will be a protest against the DUP, not an indication of trust restored.

Of the two largest parties last time, Sinn Fein keeps Barbre de Brun as its candidate, no doubt campaigning on experience and its ‘leadership’ credentials; though some republicans may be asking where that leadership is heading. de Brun has been virtually anonymous since her election to Europe. The Sinn Fein led policy to end academic selection is as unpopular with parents of children at Catholic Grammars as much as it is unpopular among unionists. On balance though, this is more likely to hit the SDLP, who share Sinn Fein’s policy objective, and is more rooted in the middle classes than Sinn Fein. However, whether any bread and butter issue will make an impact on the European campaigns is doubtful. More fundamentally, Sinn Fein must be looking at both the last Fermanagh Council by-election and the possibility of a ‘dissident’ republican standing and wondering how well the once envied machine will be able to deliver the vote as it has done in the past.

Jim Allister’s TUV poses a threat to the overall DUP vote. There is general Unionist disaffection with the performance of (at) Stormont. It could be expected that up to about one third of the DUP vote at the 2007 Assembly election would have been with an expectation that the Party would not be entering a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein. Some of this group may well still vote for DUP as the least bad option, there will be some not vote at all and the remainder will vote for Jim Allister.

In 1999 Bob McCartney of the UK Unionist Party gained around 20,000 votes, and this vote would certainly have transferred largely to Jim Allister in 2004 – one reason for the DUP vote holding. The DUP will also have benefited in 2004 from a drift of voters away from the Ulster Unionist Party, who by that stage were disillusioned with David Trimble. It is unlikely that any more votes for Jim Allister will come from the UUP – that vote has long left the Ulster Unionist Party.

Jim Allister is likely to pick up the ‘angry’ vote of those who transferred their vote to the DUP, and feel let down, and the DUP vote that believes there is no right time to share power with IRA/Sinn Fein, and feel betrayed. The bookies may be right that Allister’s total vote will most likely amount to no more than around 30,000-40,000 votes. A higher vote and the current sense of a Unionist electorate that is deeply unsettled is actually an electorate with a seething anger towards current political leadership and direction from both Unionist parties.

What then of the DUP? The candidate is Belfast based, though Diane Dodds has a high profile as Councillor and ex-MLA in West Belfast; she is also married to the current Minister of Finance Nigel Dodds, so has high name recognition. Her views on the price of bullocks and lambs is unknown – while Allister has been very much present in the News Letter’s Saturday pullout Farming Life; a widely read farming paper across the community. There is also the possibility that Diane Dodds may suffer to some extent from the fallout from the Westminster expenses row. Some unionist voters may be unwilling to vote for yet another DUP ‘family’. A DUP election strategy based on it being the only Party that can gain more votes than Sinn Fein seems tired, and a little odd when the two parties are ‘sharing’ power in Stormont. Alternative strategies may not be available.

Jim Allister may not have much chance of retaining his European seat, but his votes will still matter and will probably be the focus of post-election media analysis. Allister’s vote represents an angry and alienated Unionist electorate that may be sidelined, but can’t be easily ignored. What will be interesting will be to review the spread of the TUV votes – will Allister’s votes be predominately urban or rural? What would be the impact at the next Westminster election of the TUV vote; where the DUP and UUP are close enough that a decent percent vote by the TUV would mean the UUP regaining a seat, possibly South Antrim – assuming the UUP is able to assure a turnout of its core vote.

There is also interest in the spread of nationalist voting. At this point we do not know if a ‘dissident’ republican will stand in opposition to Sinn Fein. As Liam Clarke says in the Sunday Times, even a 2% ‘dissident’ vote would impact on the Sinn Fein’s ambitions. Will Sinn Fein fail to gain votes, or even hold its own? Will the SDLP hold enough votes to still be in the political game come the Westminster election within the next year or so.

There is little to suggest that the outcome of the June election will be anything other than the same old parties being returned to Europe. But the disaffection with the current political leaderships may mean that a protest may be made by opting for the outsider or simply not voting. Will we be looking at another sectarian head-count in the June Euro poll? Perhaps. Perhaps also wondering where the heads have gone?