Daniel Hannan blogs every day at www.hannan.co.uk.
The happiest aspect of this election has gone largely unremarked: Northern Ireland is returning to full democracy.
Until now, the existence of a separate party system in the Province condemned it to exclusion. Its MPs couldn’t aspire to ministerial office, meaning that executive power was necessarily wielded by people from Great Britain.
This had several baleful consequences. For one thing, Ulster was largely run by quangos. Lacking proper democratic oversight, the executive agencies in Northern Ireland ballooned, and the proportion of state spending reached Soviet levels. The best and brightest graduates made the rational decision to seek public sector employment, sapping the enterprise of a people once famed throughout the world for their thrift.
At the same time, politics was widely seen as a dirty, dangerous and disagreeable business. With honourable exceptions, decent people shunned representative office. Ulster Protestants sent their children, in large numbers, to English and Scottish universities, and many remained in Great Britain. Those who returned shuddered at the thought of entering public life.
In consequence, politics became tribal and defensive– even within the largest parties. David Trimble was the first ever Ulster Unionist leader to have graduated from a university, and was regarded as too-clever-by-half by many of his colleagues when he tried to create a more imaginative and modern Unionism.
Worse, the communities turned in on themselves. In 1921, three Roman Catholics sat as Unionists in Irish constituencies. By the 1960s, politics had become so binary that the UUP was debating whether to allow Catholics as members.
Identity politics takes the competition out of the system. Look at any party in Europe that speaks exclusively for a linguistic or religious minority. With a chunk of voters who feel obliged to vote for “their” side, its leaders become complacent and often corrupt. Northern Ireland is no exception to the rule.
What we see now at Stormont is a knackered duopoly: two parties tied together by a common desire to maximize the amount of public sector spending and sinecures that they can divert to their supporters. Having slugged it out for decades, Sinn Fein and the DUP are now propping each other up like two exhausted boxers in the ring.
Why? Because the system ensures that most politicians are in power most of the time. With no meaningful opposition, no one is especially interested in reducing the power of the state.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for power-sharing at Belfast. Indeed, with Scottish Presbyterian roots on one side and Ulster Catholic on the other, I’ve always felt something of a personal stake in the reconciliation of Northern Ireland’s traditions. But the current model needs to be improved. Power must shift from ministers to citizens, from quangos to councillors, from politicians to people. There must be a measure of pluralism, so that people can vote for or against an administration on the basis of its record – with safeguards, naturally, against sectarian domination.
It is in this context that I am so encouraged by my party’s decision to organise in the Province. Conservative candidates in Northern Ireland, in alliance with the UUP, are fighting on national issues: the debt crisis, the reform of public services, the need to shift people from welfare into work. For the first time in a generation, Ulster voters can to support candidates who might reasonably hope to play a role in governing the country.
I hope that the Conservatives can play a role in normalising patriotism. Identity politics in Northern Ireland has often been a thoroughly nasty business. By moving beyond sectarianism, the Tories can promote the kind of quiet and undemonstrative pride that people take for granted in Great Britain and, indeed, in the Irish Republic.
In any event, I've been in Northern Ireland this weekend canvassing for Harry Hamilton in Upper Bann and for Daphne Trimble in Lagan Valley. As readers of my blog will know, I’ve spent the past four weeks tramping around my own vast Home Counties patch. I’ve canvassed in 34 constituencies across seven counties, and still haven’t set foot in the other 49 South East seats. It is not lightly that I am spending the last weekend before polling day at the other end of the country. But here, if ever there was one, is a deserving cause.