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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: An opportunity for the Northern Irish Conservatives, if they can take it

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow him on Twitter here.

He will be editing this new “Red, White and Blue” column, focusing on politics across the United Kingdom, every Thursday.

It is hard to believe that Belfast City Council, when it voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag on the City Hall to a series of ‘designated days’, could foresee the scale of the tide of loyalist fury that its decision would unleash.

For those unfamiliar with events, a brief recap: following an unsuccessful motion by the two nationalist parties on Belfast council to ban the flying of the Union Flag over city hall, a motion was passed to restrict it to certain official days (such as the Queen’s birthday). This motion was supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the non-aligned Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power. The Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties voted against.

Protests at the time were to be expected. Some protests turning violent was also probable, this being Northern Ireland. Even the attempt by protesters to storm the building, temporarily halting council proceedings before the vote, was not surprising.

But I don’t think many people were expecting the protests to sustain themselves this long, let alone evolve into fierce expressions of loyalist discontent across a whole range of issues. For nobody is in any doubt anymore that these are just about the flag: one of the groups behind the protests recently demanded the resignation of Peter Robinson, the First Minister whose Democratic Unionist Party has been accused by some of fanning the flames in the first place to punish the Alliance Party, whose sole MP Naomi Long unseated Mr Robinson in Belfast East at the 2010 election.

Two recent developments in the province have impaled the main unionist parties on the horns of a dilemma. The first is loyalist disengagement from politics, which is not only fuelling the riots but costing unionism seats on both local councils and the Assembly (West Belfast, for example, has more than enough pro-union voters to return an MLA, but does not).

The second is the release of the most recent census figures, which show for the first time a Protestant minority in the six counties. Interestingly, despite this the proportion of people identifying as “Irish” was only 30 per cent. Following on from the last Life and Times Survey (which showed a majority of Catholics in favour of maintaining the constitutional status quo), the obvious task for unionism seemed clear: find a way to win over those Catholics who are reconciled to Britain, but still cannot or will not vote for pro-union parties.

Both the UUP and the DUP looked to be trying to make progress on that score before the flag fiasco kicked off. Events since have highlighted the dilemma in stark terms: it seems impossible for the same party to appeal to both disaffected loyalists and persuadable Catholics at the same time.

It gets worse. In addition to Catholic “swing voters”, there is a large chunk of moderate unionist voters who do not much sympathise with the current protests or anybody who looks to be trying to exploit them. This group is the core vote, if one exists, for the Alliance Party, which formally abandoned unionism some time ago. On the other hand, many loyalists now harbour a deep antipathy to the Alliance and anybody seen to consort with them.

This would be less of a problem if the UUP and DUP were more distinct. Time was that the UUP would chase moderate unionist voters, whilst the DUP would do more to represent loyalists. With the DUP now the majority party they don’t have the leeway to pander to street protests that they used to (although the instinct is still there, unhelpfully), whilst the UUP has failed to adapt to minority party status at all, instead functioning as a sort of DUP-lite. As a result, both parties are pursuing the same vote in the “middle” of the unionist electorate, shedding both moderates and loyalists on either end.

Is there any potential in this for the Northern Irish Conservatives? Well, possibly. Whilst there is very little in the party platform to appeal to disaffected loyalists, the moderate unionist electorate that’s abandoning the UUP for the Alliance could provide a base. Not only is there room to move in on their vote, but if the UUP’s hard-line wing remains committed to convergence with the DUP one can’t rule out the possibility of defections.

However, the NI Tories have fallen into the trap of over-hyping defections that didn’t end up happening before. The fact that we could derive some advantage from the UUP’s woes certainly doesn’t mean we will.

As for the loyalists, the most important thing is to reassure them that, despite some appearances to the contrary, the Union is more secure than it has been for a while. The government has a role to play in doing that: Theresa Villiers’ speech on the subject hit the right theme. But most of the legwork there has to be done by politicians in Northern Ireland.

Currency and submarines in Scotland

In Scotland meanwhile, the SNP are manning the walls to fend off the latest threat to their rosy projections of a post-independence Scotland – the supposed currency union with the rUK. This is a policy that has already suffered setbacks, not least the unravelling of Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that an independent Scotland would get a seat on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (it turned out that nobody had even asked the Bank, and the answer was no).

Now, in response to the notion that the rUK might not actually consent to maintaining ‘Sterling Zone’ currency union with a fiscally independent Scotland – and not without cause – Nationalist treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie has indicated that the SNP might pursue “a less formal arrangement”.

If this is a serious proposal, it would leave Scotland using a currency over which it had no control, administered by a freshly foreign country without the interests of the Scottish economy in mind. Quite aside from how international investors might view the business environment that would create, it’s an interesting new take on ‘independence’.

The other big debate is the ongoing one about the future of shipbuilding and the Royal Navy’s submarine bases. For the former, the Ministry of Defence has made it very clear that it doesn’t build warships in foreign countries, and the SNP is drawing fire from shipbuilding unions over what future an independent Scotland can offer their members.

As for the latter, some within the SNP are trying to maintain the position that the rUK would obligingly decamp its nuclear submarines (the SNP’s Scotland being nuclear-free) whilst leaving everything else in place. Others, including defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP, claim that the requirements of a new Scottish Defence Force (which seems to be the consensus on the name, ‘armies’ being for baddie nations like Britain) would pick up most of the employment shortfall. Which looks to be nonsense.

But with naval bases being hugely important regional employers – the Faslane base is apparently “the largest employment site in Scotland” – the debate over their future could sway tens of thousands of votes.


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