Thursday, 24 July 2008

Empey/ Cameron statement should be welcomed despite difficulties it raises.

For some time it has been known that Sir Reg Empey has an interest in aligning the Ulster Unionist Party more closely with David Cameron’s Conservatives. At the UUP’s AGM the leader’s speech committed the party to working closely with the Tories in the European Parliament. Empey’s instinct looks set to crystallise into a more concrete arrangement with the two party leaders releasing a joint statement in today’s Daily Telegraph and setting up a joint working party to examine increased cooperation between the UUP and the Conservatives.

The possibilities are at once both exciting and problematic. Many Ulster Unionists instinctively wish to move closer to the centre of UK politics and play an increased role in defending the Union as a totality. Alignment with the Conservatives certainly lends more scope for this pan-unionist vision, as well as offering the tantalising prospect of involvement in central government. On the other hand, many members feel that their politics lie closer to other mainland parties, rather than to the Tories and the party is still tainted by its association with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a constitutional change imposed from on high without seeking the consent of Northern Ireland’s people. It is worth having a closer look at exactly what is under discussion, as well as touching on the possibilities and complexities which it raises.

The joint statement refers to “the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland” and explicitly commends the notion of Northern Ireland MPs “supporting and serving in a Conservative Government”. Whilst such ambitions certainly imply more than friendly cooperation between the two parties, neither is it specifically stated that a merger, or takeover, is the intention. Certainly the arrangement’s motivations are outlined in extremely positive terms. The Conservative Party wish to underline their commitment to Union, by active participation in politics in each of the United Kingdom’s constituent parts. Both parties wish to normalise and integrate politics in Northern Ireland, “an unambiguous partner within the wider United Kingdom family”, which “needs to be brought back into the mainstream of UK politics. It needs more full-time MPs working in the House of Commons, taking part in all the national debates”.

As a civic unionist, clearly such rhetoric echoes and augments my beliefs and the arguments that I have been putting forward on Three Thousand Versts. In this statement we see concrete steps being put in train to offer the type of politics for which many in the UUP have long been arguing. We see the parochialism and Ulster nationalism, which is prevalent within Northern Ireland’s politics currently, being explicitly challenged.

David Cameron’s motivation in pursuing closer links to the UUP lies in his desire to broaden his party’s appeal beyond England. In seeking to become a truly ‘national’ party he will necessarily strengthen the party’s unionist credentials and in common with his Ulster Unionist partners, Cameron can claim finally to be taking concrete steps in order to arrest decline in support for the Union and counteract the localist forces exacting centrifugal influence on the ties which bind the United Kingdom together. Mick Fealty, the Daily Telegraph’s editorial and Tory blog Conservative Home have applauded the initiative from the Conservative perspective.

What then of the Ulster Unionist perspective and the complexities of which I made earlier mention? The Telegraph’s editorial states that the incipient deal will secure for the Conservative Party an extra MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon. This simple contention raises graphically some of the difficulties inherent in forging an understanding. Hermon is some distance from being an instinctual supporter of the Conservative Party. Indeed the UUP’s only MP has aligned herself closely with New Labour’s policies throughout her time in Parliament. Other UUP members and representatives might also feel estranged by any alliance with the Tories. Fred Cobain, a senior party member, and MLA for North Belfast was strongly opposed to previous flirtations between the parties under David Trimble’s leadership. Similarly Michael McGimpsey, one of two UUP ministers in the Northern Ireland executive, would be considered to lie to the left of the national political spectrum.

I am a UUP member and I would personally be reluctant to describe myself as Conservative. My only vote on the British mainland went to a Liberal Democrat candidate. So what of the variegated national party sympathies which can be found within the UUP?

The changing nature of national politics and the repositioning of the Tory party which David Cameron has undertaken offer some resolution. The Conservative Party has moved to address social and welfare issues in a fashion which has found it much more firmly in the centre ground. In contrast, the Labour Party has assumed the mantle of Thatcherite economics and its policies on privatisation and social issues are often arguably to the right of the Tories. Certainly in debates about civil liberties, individual freedoms and the encroachment of government into the realm of the private individual, the Conservative Party are currently advancing more liberal arguments than Labour.

In addition something which Ulster Unionists must take into account is the increasing centrality of the constitutional debate in national discourse. Alongside economic, social and foreign policy issues, the very existence of the Union and the form which it should take is now a pivotal issue in the national political conversation. The importance of being involved in this conversation should not be underestimated. In Michael Kerr’s book ‘Transforming Unionism: David Trimble and the 2005 Election’ the author argues that differences between Ulster Unionists’ national political allegiances should take a back seat when it comes to the overarching issue of defending the Union itself. He specifically posits a closer relationship with the Tories as the best possible means by which to realise an Ulster Unionist revival and better defend the Union. With the Union debate currently in the crucible of British political argument, thanks to Labour’s asymmetric devolution experiment, Kerr’s contention is strengthened. Ulster Unionists have a chance to affect this debate, affect Conservative Party policy and normalise politics within Northern Ireland in the unambiguous context of the United Kingdom. This process ultimately offers a far greater prize, whereby the subtleties of political difference can in the future be expressed much more readily.

Of course the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have historical connections. The relationship ended in acrimony after Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed the Anglo Irish Agreement in the 1980s. There remains to this day a degree of residual mistrust amongst unionists in Northern Ireland toward the Conservative Party. That mistrust is somewhat abating as the Tory party has changed and as the situation in Northern Ireland has changed.

Broadly, as a civic unionist, as a pan-UK unionist, I welcome the statement and the possibilities it suggests. If managed correctly it offers an exciting opportunity to move unionist politics away from the parish pump, revive genuine unionism as opposed to its ‘Ulster nationalist’ competitor and strengthen the Union throughout this Kingdom.


Anonymous said...

I, for my sins, am an elected Ulster Unionist Party Councillor

My initial reaction on hearing this development on GMU was positive and remains so after a quick trawl of t'internet and the blogosphere.

Like you I would have a difficulty with describing myself as a 'Tory' which may stem from my late Ballymena Granny chastising me for being a 'Tory Rogue' for misbehaving as a child. She also described Mrs T as an 'oule bitch'.

However there is a bigger picture here, and if this process leads to a credible alternative to the freak show that is the DUP/ Sinn Fein junta at Stormont then happy days.

Cameron also appears to see the need to work to get back the 'celtic fringe' and build a broad centrist coalition right across the UK.

Yes the details need to be worked out but I for one would give this a very fair wind.

Cllr Anon at the Moment

O'Neill said...

I think I'm alot more positive than you both on this (although I recognise that as a non UUP party member that's maybe easier for me to say). This is the kind of announcement I've been waiting for and it's completely caught the ethno-nationalists of both the DUP and SF on the hop.

Memebers of my family, like many in NI, have very bad memories of the harsh economic realities of Thatcherism and the arrogance of the old landed Tories, but the Conservative party of Cameron is a very different beast, a broad church indeed, but more importantly it is a UK church and it can only be a good thing for our east-west ties to be strengthened in this way. The cause of the Union within NI and in the Uk as a whole can only be advanced by this.

Chekov said...

I think the slant of my piece of overwhelmingly positive O'Neill. I merely acknowledge the problems that undoubtedly exist. I also think those problems are surmountable and that there is far more to be gained from this initiative than lost. If I didn't make my excitement at the possibilities clear I'll restate it now.

David said...

Chekov do you think it would encourage more people to get involved in NI politics - people who are interested in more normal politics and who aren't interested in ultra ethnic DUP/SF type politics.

That was something Cameron was suggesting as a motivation in his GMU interview. The lack of new faces is a particular problem for the UUP.

Chekov said...

David I do think the initiative will broaden the appeal of both parties and perhaps encourage some people to get involved who might otherwise have hesitated because of the tribal reputation of politics in Northern Ireland. If it encourages an influx of new blood then that is unequivocally a good thing for the UUP. Whether the fabled ‘garden centre unionist’ comes flocking back in huge numbers I do not know, but I detect that even the statement from the two leaders has had something of a rejuvenating effect on the party’s morale.

Anonymous said...

I think its fairly clear when David cameron stated that there will be no halfway house he clearly means that the UUP will cease to exist and simply become the conservatives albeit on the the same model as the scottish and welsh party.

I wonder if some members of the uup appreciate that if this deal goes ahead the uup ceases to exist i suspect the months ahead will be very interesting.

Ignited said...

Ceasing to exist is an extreme description, and obviously with the UUC history there is an emotive response to that. 'Realigning' would be a more welcome term for the UUP, but there is no getting around that the UUP will be moing towards the Tories and not the other way around.

Chekov said...

It is my understanding that you are correct in that assumption Ignited. It requires careful handling in order to convince members that the history and traditions of the UUP will be adequately represented in the type of amalgamation that Cameron is envisaging. Empey has shown remarkable boldness with this move, but it is his baby and he needs to sell it to the rest of the party.

Anonymous said...

Sorry David Cameron has made it perfectly clear there will be no halfway house.

How can you join a new party and expect your old political beliefs to remain the same and be repected?

If this deal carries through to its logigal conclusion the party will be called the Northern Irish Conservative party.

Chekov said...

"How can you join a new party and expect your old political beliefs to remain the same and be repected?"

If two parties decide that their beliefs are compatible, then that continuity and respect is possible. It may well be that Cameron envisages a straight take-over. Surely he will not object to allowing the UUP time and space to make that take-over less problematic? Surely he will be a little sensitive when it comes to nomenclature etc? I take the point you are making in substance, but it to neither party's benefit if this isn't handled sensitively and I'm sure Cameron will be astute enough to realise that.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the wider uup believes it will be a loose alliance and Sir Reg has not disabused them of this notion he has had a great deal of courage to go down this road the problem for him is that if this goes pear shaped what happens to him and the party?

Chekov said...

He has to retain enough independent trappings in the short term to act as a comfort blanket to sceptics and to provide an escape route. He has to persuade Cameron that this is necessary and will work to his advantage.