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.