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Jeffrey Peel: Changing Northern Ireland’s political landscape

Picture_2 Jeffrey is Vice Chairman and Spokesperson for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland

Saturday 6th December, 2008 was the day when a leader of the Conservative Party changed Northern Ireland politics forever.  Evidence can be found in places other than David Cameron’s speech to the UUP conference on Saturday – a speech that made clear that Northern Ireland is no longer a no-go area for Conservatives or real politics.  There is other, more tangible, evidence - a blog post on Slugger O’Toole by a lady from West Belfast called Kathleen.  She attended a Cameron Direct event immediately before David made his way to the UUP Conference.

Kathleen has previously voted SDLP or Sinn Fein but, having listened to Cameron, she’d be prepared to vote Conservative, given what she’d heard. 

And others in the Cameron Direct audience were moved too.  Young people were in the majority in the room of around one hundred people who were fortunate enough to get places at the over-subscribed event.  And the questions focused on real issues that mattered to people – healthcare, fuel poverty, the economy, alternative energy.  Not one question was asked about devolution of policing or the Irish language or the border – issues upon which the DUP and Sinn Fein fixate. 

What Kathleen heard was a Conservative leader make clear that Conservatives defined Unionism in a way that resonated with her.  She was moved by Cameron’s commitment to ending social exclusion – and doing something about the social decay evident in places like West Belfast.  She made clear that if Conservatives came into her constituency and made the same points that Cameron had made, they’d get her vote. 

And they are coming into her constituency.

Last week Iain Duncan Smith MP and Owen Paterson MP visited West Belfast – including St Aidan’s school in Whiterock.  Communal squabbles have done nothing for Whiterock which is synonymous with violence, poverty, social exclusion – all the things that criminality leeches upon. 

The politics of polarisation have left places like it and Tullycarnet – also visited by Iain and Owen - behind.  But they are no longer no-go areas for the Conservatives. 

And the UUP has been revitalised by the link with the Conservative Party and David Cameron’s visit.  Suddenly this is a Party on a mission with a new, inclusive, whole-community definition of what Conservativism and Unionism is about.  And the DUP is not too pleased.

Attendees at the UUP conference vastly outnumbered the numbers who bothered to show up at the DUP’s bash a few weeks ago.  Seven to eight hundred people squashed into the Ramada’s biggest function room and there was a spontaneous standing ovation as David Cameron walked into the room.  Here was a future Prime Minister and Conservative leader claiming a personal “strategic and selfish” interest in the people of Northern Ireland – and all of them.  And the UUP audience lapped it up, greeting him with another standing ovation as he left.  The media was left reeling.  Never before had they covered such a euphoric UUP conference or seen a more up-beat and confident Sir Reg Empey, the UUP leader.

But the momentum is growing and some in media circles are beginning to latch on to this idea whose time has come.  The Irish Times has sat up and taken notice of the fact that Owen Paterson, the Conservative Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, seems to be a man on a mission while his opposite number, Shaun Woodward MP, is nowhere to be seen.

Even the Belfast Telegraph editorial-writer, prior to David Cameron’s arrival, was forced to admit that perhaps changes were afoot:

“David Cameron, who potentially is the next Prime Minister, is seeking to break the mould of Northern Ireland politics. He sees the recent alliance of the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives as an opportunity to reach out to all those in the province who believe in the union.”

And there are consequences for the whole United Kingdom in this.  Every voter in every parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom will be able to vote for a Conservative and Unionist candidate.   Labour prefers to treat Northern Ireland as a forbidden zone.  Although we’re delighted to note that there are local activists seeking to change that too.

By standing in every constituency the joint Conservative and Unionist candidates are making clear that every voter should have the right to vote for the only truly national political party of this Kingdom. There are no, no-go areas any longer.  And that’s why Saturday was truly historic and a day for sound-bites:

“For as long as anyone can remember, politics here has been dominated by constitutional issues – the Union, or the latest developments in the peace process. Many people have been put off from participating in a politics based on division.  Others still haven’t bothered to vote. But the constitutional certainty that Northern Ireland now enjoys opens the opportunity for that to change...”

- David Cameron, December 6th, 2008.


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