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Jeffrey Peel: Conservatism and Humanism in Northern Ireland

With (another) Assembly election likely in Northern Ireland in March 2007, Jeffrey Peel, Spokesman for the NI Area of the Conservatives, considers a more secular basis for Northern Ireland politics.

Northern Ireland is an odd place.  Yes it’s normalising.  Yes we have an array of glistening new shopping centres, the fastest increase in house prices in the UK outside London, and there is a new confidence in the new Northern Ireland.  But there is still that feeling of difference from the rest of the UK…in fact from the rest of Europe…indeed from the rest of the first world.  Because Northern Ireland still has a political system that is of the third world.

What do I mean by this?  Well consider a third world democracy.  Most have tribal or sect based political systems – if they have any real democracy at all.  These tribal/sect based political parties are nearly always religious associations.  Unless the tribal basis of politics can be replaced with the secular, there is nearly always no progress. 

Just look at what’s happening in Iraq and what happened in Rwanda.  AC Grayling, writing in the Guardian a few days ago, summed this up very neatly recently…(just think about Northern Ireland when reading his words):

“Secularism is the view that church and state (religion and national government) should be kept separate…Religious interference or, worse, control of government has a ready tendency to degenerate into what we might revealingly call Talibanism, as history and current affairs overwhelmingly and tragically attest.” 

I, for one, don’t relish the idea of Ian Paisley’s style of Talibanism or Gerry Adams’ for that matter. 

Northern Ireland has been characterised by non-secular, tribal based politics since partition.  The Ulster Unionist Party broke away from the Conservative Party given the need to defend the Union and the ‘Protestant’ people.  Ditto the spin-off Parties – including the ultra-Protestant DUP.  And providing a neat counter-balance has been Sinn Fein and the almost universally Catholic Irish nationalist parties. 

Many of us here cannot find anything about the sectarian based political system in Northern Ireland attractive.  Ironically, when people from Northern Ireland leave these shores and settle in England they seem to find it remarkably easy to adapt to a normal political system…witness Kate Hoey (who has been working hard to persuade the Labour Party to organise here) or Brian Mawhinney, the former Chairman of the Conservative Party (and Ulsterman). 

But, here, politicians actually have to define themselves as Unionist or Nationalist in the Assembly.  And direct rule ministers go native when they arrive at Stormont Castle.  They seem to think that we have been born sectarian.  They cite the popularity of the local parties.  But, then again, there has been nothing else on offer.

Lidington_david_new In the mid 90s things changed.  After a protracted campaign local Conservative organisations were at last recognised by Central Office.  In the early days the Party seemed to have a realistic prospect of doing well – a number of Conservative councillors were elected.  However, the fortune of the local Party reflected that of the national Party in the late 90s and early noughties.  But with the election of David Cameron it has been undergoing a resurgence.  Cameron, as well as his Shadow NI Secretary, David Lidington (pictured), have been making clear that they want to see a focus on real politics.  On his most recent visit to Belfast Cameron made clear that he would campaign with local Conservative candidates in the lead-up to the Assembly elections.  We are also confident that other shadow cabinet members will give us support – as they did at this year’s Party conference.

As David Cameron put it on his visit:

I want politics in Northern Ireland to be about the real things – schools, hospitals, tax...not about timetables, deadlines and institutional arrangements.  And I want the Conservative Party to be a part of that new politics."

We don’t expect to be the biggest political Party in Northern Ireland for some time – tribal thinking can be difficult to displace.  But we are helping to create a political system that sits outside of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland.  And we need support – financial, campaigning and blogging.  Please write to me if you’d like to lend your help in making Northern Ireland part of the political mainstream.

Related link: Neil Johnston's 'Northern Ireland - Time for a better beginning'


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