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Lucius Winslow: Why Conservatives have a future in Northern Ireland

Lucius Winslow is a Politics student. He also contributes to the non-party website Open Unionism.

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 11.27.13As footage recently spread once again across the internet and television screens showing Belfast engulfed in violence, it was easy to understand why the rest of the United Kingdom finds Northern Ireland such a disorienting and seemingly half-foreign place. In such circumstances it seems unusual to advocate that the Tories become more involved. But this is the only coherent position for the Conservative and Unionist Party to adopt. Tories are already well established in Wales, and are not as alien in Scotland as Labour and Alex Salmond like to pretend. But they are nowhere in Northern Ireland - much like the other British parties.

On this issue, the Prime Minister’s motives are beyond reproach. It is to his immense credit that David Cameron spent considerable time and effort on Northern Ireland when he was the Leader of the Opposition. As someone who was in the room at the time, I remember vividly the speech he gave to the Ulster Unionist Conference in 2008. Yet most of us knew that he was probably wasting all the effort, expense, and political capital that his Northern Irish foray entailed, and so it proved. The Conservative-UUP alliance was a massive flop, and failed either to provide a Conservative breakthrough into the province or halt the decline of the Ulster Unionists.

Indeed. it may even have accelerated this, with the UUP’s only MP actually leaving (for, despite representing the most affluent constituency in Northern Ireland, Lady Sylvia Hermon may as well be a Labour MP). In hindsight, the flop was predictable. For the Conservative Party, it was a way of getting MPs in Northern Ireland without having to do any serious lifting. It also let David Cameron deploy the –  admittedly welcome –  line that his party was the only one fighting for the four corners of the Kingdom. But the Tories did not deploy significant amounts of manpower, and did not seriously attempt to push a national agenda in the province.

Instead, they subsidised quite considerably (I believe to the tune of over £250,000) the Ulster Unionists, and didn’t think much else about it. However, the Ulster Unionists made no serious attempt to reform. Under the affable but overly-conciliatory Sir Reg Empey they continued their previous policy drift, and all too often slipped into the easy but vacuous position of criticising the Northern Ireland Executive, but refusing to leave it. Hardly inspiring for voters. Even leaving the substance to one side, the presentation of the link up was a disaster. Whoever chose the name of the new political organisation should probably have been put up against a Peace Wall and summarily executed. For the new coalition was named the Ulster Conservative an Unionists - New Force. UCUNF.

From then on it was always saddled as something slightly ridiculous, which nobody could take seriously. The sense of embarrassment gradually mounted, until no-one really wanted to talk about the link-up. And so there was no fusion of hierarchy, no genuine unification. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron was back in London, doing more important things. Of course, another part of the problem is that only a party which is in trouble would seek help from outside, meaning that any British party which gets involved in this way is likely to shackle itself to a corpse, as the Tories did. Furthermore, by allying with any local party one risks taking a step into sectarian waters, which is not a particularly conducive way to win votes or represent a genuinely new form of politics.

So the only way to grow a party in Northern Ireland is organically. Despite all the difficulties, there is a market for the two mainstream British parties. Now the Labour Party have shamefully turned away from that, even in principal, but the Conservative Party still has a chance. Having multi-member constituencies does grant some scope for the Tories to compete for the bottom seat, and we could pick up some seats in local government. It would take a lot of effort, but it might yield some results. After all, in the 1992 General Election the Conservatives' Dr Lawrence Kennedy managed to gain 32 per cent of the vote in the aforementioned North Down.

Unfortunately, the best chance the Tories had to make gains was when Basil McCrea and John McAllister left the UUP. Sadly they chose instead to make up their own little party, with all the failure that has come with that. But there is always space for the Conservatives in Ulster, and technically the party doesn’t start from absolute zero: in the form of Dr Brian Dunn the Tories have one councillor in Northern Ireland. So there’s hope yet.


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