Monday, 4 August 2008

UUP - Conservative pact shows up the DUPes

Having repaired to Portrush to enjoy a rain sodden weekend, I have missed the boat somewhat, and others have picked up first on Steven King’s Irish Examiner article in which he reveals that Peter Robinson had been pushing the idea of DUP / Conservative collaboration. Of course that was before Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron announced that it is their parties that will be pursuing realignment and forging a ‘new political force’. King’s revelation demonstrates how much credence should be accorded to statements from the DUP, such as that of Nigel Dodds, who has condemned the UUP’s move on the grounds that it compromises Northern Ireland unionists’ independence.

“Being staunchly unionist whilst at the same time being free from having the fetter of an imposed whip, whether it is Tory or Labour means we are best placed to speak, negotiate and represent the people who have elected us.”

Clearly prior to the Conservative / UUP announcement Dodds’ own party leader did not share this analysis. Whereas Ulster Unionists recognise that the most constructive role for Northern Irish unionism is to seek to play a fuller role within United Kingdom politics, to offer the unionist electorate an opportunity to vote for members of the next government at Westminster and to exercise influence from within an all-Kingdom unionist party, Dodds is forced to repair to the ‘perfidious Albion’ routine and fantasies about a hung parliament. It is familiar and comfortable ground for a party propounding a brand of Ulster particularism which has seen them perpetually pissing on the British tent from the outside. As King outlines, it is precisely the alien character of the DUP (from the perspective of mainstream British politics) which prevents a party like the Tories doing a deal with what is, numerically, the stronger Northern Irish unionist party.

“if….. the DUP actually didn’t like the 42-day measure but traded their votes on a big national question for a prime ministerial promise not to relax the abortion laws in the north, wasn’t that a bit unsporting, not to mention parochial? Tory perceptions were only hardened by Iris Robinson taunting their benches, holding up nine fingers. And then the First Minister’s wife did it again. Calling homosexuality an “abomination” might be biblical but it was hardly going to endear the DUP to a Tory shadow cabinet that includes two openly gay MPs and is desperate to appear in touch with modern, secular, multicultural Britain.”

Of course Iris trumped all her previous contentions by claiming “the government has a responsibility to uphold God’s laws”. A statement which, whilst unproblematic to Ulster’s hard-line evangelical Protestants steeped in the tradition of politics as religious covenant, is inimical to just about anyone who might value the liberal democratic tradition. Whatever arcane formulation evangelicals might advance to justify this type of language, to the vast majority of people it seems a downright contradiction of the tenet that sovereignty resides ultimately with the people who elect their representatives. Such a statement is as foreign to Cameron’s Conservatives, as a pronouncement from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cameron is said to have summarised the unbridgeable gap between the DUP and Conservatives as, ‘serious differences in content and tone’.

King’s article is circumspect about the UUP Conservative arrangement, acknowledging that a deal is not as yet done. His qualification regarding the allegiance of Sylvia Hermon is not quite put to bed with the announcement that the North Down MP will form part of the working group set up to iron out details as to how the two parties’ compact will operate. However he envisages the deal as providing a renewed sense of purpose for the UUP at a time when the DUP’s popularity seems ‘to have peaked’.

If the UUP can deliver the right agreement with the Tories, retaining at least the trappings of distinct identity for the party whilst forming a very concrete relationship which really will change the face of politics here, then King’s optimism is well founded. The CDU/CSU model which appears likely to form the basis of the new force should provide the flexibility to mould a relationship which suits both parties. With the UUP playing an integrated role in British politics, actively involving themselves in strengthening the Union throughout the Kingdom and offering voters a meaningful voice at Westminster and in Europe, the DUP’s ‘ourselves alone’, parish pump conception of politics will appear increasingly antithetical to the pro-Union electorate.

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