Fair Deal, Slugger O’Toole’s DUP blogger, is ever vigilant for anything which can be construed as dissent within the UUP, so it was inevitable, that whilst I pondered the knotty problems of Nigel Worthington’s managerial reign, FD would blog Liam Clarke’s article about Lady Sylvia Hermon and the UUP / Tory deal. I’ve briefly outlined my thoughts on that Slugger thread, but it is useful to flesh out here, the arguments with which I would counter some of the points Clarke raises.
By way of disclaimer I would stress that Clarke’s interpretation may or may not fairly represent where Lady Hermon stands on the proposed realignment. My comments are intended neither to pre-empt her response to any concrete suggestions which the working group (which she has taken part in) might suggest, nor to condemn her for taking a less than constructive attitude to the UUP / Tory proposals. I merely wish to tease out the conundrum which would be posed by an MP declaring loyalty to New Labour and refusing to subscribe to any mooted arrangements.
Firstly the circumstances which pertain, whereby Ulster Unionists can boast only one Westminster MP, undoubtedly distort the picture somewhat. During this parliament, that MP has been used to her position as a one woman band. Consequently she has enjoyed a great deal of discretion to vote as she wishes and shape an agenda which is not particularly representative of prevailing opinion within her party. A classic instance occurred during the debate over 42 day detention, when Lady Hermon was out of step with colleagues in the Lords. She is still, however, a representative of a party, and representing a party occasionally involves principled compromises in order to hold the party line.
Which brings me rather neatly to my next point. I have some time for Ulster Unionist members who uphold socialist principles and thus struggle to countenance a deal with the Conservatives. I have less sympathy when the struggle derives from infatuation with the ideological vacuum of New Labour. Chris McGimpsey, whose analysis I have also taken issue with, argues from the standpoint of representing a working class constituency and propounding traditional Labour values. Hermon represents prosperous North Down and her adherence to Blair and Brown derives from less fundamental principles.
Once again, 42 days provides a useful indicator. Every progressive, liberal and communitarian conservative argument, of any worth, on pre charge detention was ranged against Gordon Brown’s measures. Subsequently the House of Lords sounded the Terrorism Bill’s death-knell, to acclaim from across the political spectrum. To vote loyally with the government on this issue shows, not so much strong commitment to liberal or progressive principle, as much as a smitten desire to please a party leadership other than one’s own.
Clarke makes great play of North Down’s reputation for independence and Hermon’s popularity within that constituency. I would not necessarily draw the same conclusions which he attempts to adduce from its past incilnation to depart from Northern Ireland’s political norm. Rather than descrying a strong proclivity toward independent candidates, I would tend to see a constituency which feels less comfortable with traditional Northern Irish party divisions. In actual fact, I see a constituency for which the Conservative alignment would be directly relevant. After all, one of the mavericks which Clarke name checks is Robert McCartney, a man whose political career was dedicated to bringing Northern Ireland’s politics into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Additionally North Down remains the Northern Irish Tories only serious political redoubt.
If anything Lady Hermon’s constituency bears closer resemblance to constituencies within other parts of the United Kingdom, than do other Northern Irish seats. Perhaps that is why it has previously been inclined to vote for candidates which do not always resemble those elected in other areas here. As such, North Down is likely to share the aversion to New Labour which constituencies throughout the United Kingdom have been developing, in the next General Election. Whilst its electorate may not return a hard-line unionist rather than the sitting MP, it certainly might prefer a Conservative and Unionist candidate as opposed to an independent, firmly aligned to a failing Labour government.
These are points which must be born in mind by Lady Sylvia Hermon and the UUP leadership as they consider their next move. The Ulster Unionists have a once in a lifetime chance to strengthen the Union and bring normal UK politics to Northern Ireland. Lady Hermon would be a fine addition to the Conservative and Unionist movement, but she cannot be allowed to derail plans (if that is her intention). As I have intimated previously, it is vital that Sir Reg Empey remains steadfast on this, or his leadership will have failed and failed abjectly.