David Shiels: David Cameron's "new political force" in Northern Ireland will be the only party capable of uniting people from all backgrounds
David Shiels is a PhD student at Peterhouse, Cambridge and is writing his thesis on post-War Conservatism. He is Secretary of the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies and is an occasional commentator on Northern Ireland politics.
Ever since David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey announced last July that the Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party had entered into talks to establish a ‘new political force’ in Northern Ireland, there has been vigorous debate in the Northern Ireland press about the future of Unionism in the province. Over the past few weeks that debate has taken an interesting turn, with politicians from the two Unionist parties – the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists - debating the merits of something known as ‘Unionist unity’.
The plea for ‘Unionist unity’ is not new, and it would involve an agreement between the DUP and UUP – probably in the form of an electoral pact – to work together to ‘maximise’ the Unionist vote. Traditionally, the call for unity was made by politicians from the Ulster Unionist Party, fearful of never-ending splits within their ranks, at a time when the DUP were interested only in dividing Unionism.
Since topping the polls at the 2003 Assembly Elections, the DUP have realised that uniting Unionism would work to their advantage. During the 2005 General Election the DUP made much of its offer of a ‘deal’ with the UUP which was designed to keep two constituencies with narrow Unionist majorities in Unionist hands. The DUP offered not to field a candidate against the UUP in one constituency on the understanding that the UUP would agree to a reciprocal arrangement in another; but the UUP, sensing that this was an attempt to carve up the Northern Ireland electorate on sectarian lines, sensibly rejected the proposal. Both seats in question fell to Nationalists – one to the abstentionist Sinn Fein – and since then the DUP have frequently peddled the myth that the UUP cost Unionism two seats in the Commons.
The latest round of calls for unity – led by the DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson - have taken place in a much-changed political atmosphere, and are clearly a desperate attempt by the DUP to seize control of Unionism following the UUP’s new relationship with the Conservatives. Clearly Mr Robinson and his party have been deeply surprised by the UUP’s move, but his most recent contributions to the debate suggest that he - like many other commentators – does not appreciate just how much has changed since Sir Reg and Mr Cameron made that announcement last July.
The greatest of these changes has been in the transformation of attitudes within the Conservative Party itself. Attempting to brand the deal a ‘take-over’ of the UUP, as Mr Robinson has done, does not do justice to the determination with which the Conservative Party’s leadership has approached the mission of offering a radical break from the traditional, sectarian nature of politics in the province.
When Conservative Party activists made the first, tentative steps towards organising and fielding candidates in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they had to endure the hostility of the Party leadership in London. The fact that David Cameron was willing to come over to the UUP’s party conference in December and place his credibility on the line – for that is what he has done – is a demonstration that this deal is different from everything that has gone before. In his December speech, Mr Cameron referred to his own ‘selfish, strategic’ interest in securing this deal. He was referring to the pool of talent in Northern Ireland he hoped to tap to the advantage of his own party, but this reference was also a cunning reversal of the Conservative rhetoric of the past.
Mr Cameron has, of course, faced the charge that he was acting only in his own selfish and strategic interest, using this deal as a way of demonstrating that the Conservative Party was not an England-only party. But his critics overlook the historical tensions he has had to overcome in order to sell this deal to his own party. The UUP, after all, have not exactly had a perfect history in the eyes of many Tories, alienating both the ‘right’ and ‘left’ wings of the Party. Putting it bluntly, the Thatcherites cannot forget the stinging criticisms the UUP once made of their great leader after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1986 (‘treachery’ was a frequent cry); while the more liberal element within the party has always been wary of associating with the maverick little Ulstermen who have combined (in their eyes) the excesses of the British Nationalists they so dislike with an unpredictable temperament.
Now, however, many Tories are enthusiastic about joining with the
Ulster Unionists, due in no small part to the tireless activism, and
genuine enthusiasm, of the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen
It is largely thanks to the openness with which the Conservative Party have approached the deal that attitudes within the Ulster Unionist Party have also been transformed. A year ago the party was facing destruction at the hands of its own success in signing the Good Friday Agreement, not knowing how to distinguish themselves from the DUP. Now the party views the future with some optimism, even if many of its members remain cautious.
There are still some problems to be overcome. As the Joint Committee set up by the two leaders prepares to report, it is said that the UUP remains concerned to protect its ‘Ulster’ identity. This is an understandable concern, because the UUP know that Northern Ireland’s electorate has not been used to grand talk and optimistic rhetoric. But the UUP must not forget that the real prize is the possibility is that they will reclaim the ‘Unionist’ identity which has long been sidelined in British politics.
There will be no doubt where the ‘Conservatives and Unionists’ will stand on the long-term constitutional issue. But they will also take a clear stand on all the important issues facing Northern Ireland today. By offering a clear, non-sectarian, alternative to the DUP, the ‘new force’ will be the only party capable of uniting people from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland. With the reality of Northern Ireland’s bitter past having recently returned to the headlines once more, we must surely seize every opportunity for bringing about a new kind of politics.