Monday, 24 November 2008

Healing psychological wounds, Tory deal makes explicit economic and strategic interests

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke’s contention, in 1990, that the UK government had no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ inflicted something of a scar on the Ulster unionist psyche. The British government’s statement of constitutional neutrality may have fallen short of nationalists’ demand that it become a ‘persuader’ for a united Ireland, but it instilled in unionism an insecurity from which it has yet to recover and had, as its basis, an unsustainable paradox formulated largely to facilitate a process of appeasing republicanism.

If Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom were to mean anything, its government would evidently retain an interest, both economic and strategic, despite protestation to the contrary. Brooke’s formulation was patent nonsense, and it has not been borne out in reality. Westminster has pledged to respect the will of the people of Northern Ireland, as regards its constitutional status, and whilst that status remains within the United Kingdom, the government’s interests will remain. It is high time that unionism completed its convalescence from the trauma which the ‘interest’ statement induced. The Conservative Party’s decision to align with Ulster Unionists offers a means by which to affect the recovery.

Northern nationalists’ cause has always been underwritten, to a greater or lesser extent, by sponsorship from the Republic’s government. Although its constitutional claim has been removed, Dublin’s irredentist ambitions remain an ingrained aspect of its political culture. Only last week Bertie Ahern reaffirmed the ‘imperative’ of the Republic’s aspirations for unity. With consent the accepted basis for constitutional change and a framework to ensure both unionist and nationalist aspirations are respected, there is no reason why the British government cannot play a similar role for unionists.

Indeed there could not be a more consistent or logical position for a Westminster government to assume. The Republic of Ireland believes that Northern Ireland would be best governed as part of a united Ireland, the argument might run, and although we respect that aspiration and continue to work with the Republic’s government as friends and partners, we believe in the merits of the United Kingdom, and contend that Northern Ireland’s continued membership of that Kingdom is best for its governance and its people. Such a position comprises no threat to the status of Irish nationalism or the respect it is accorded within the UK. Safeguards have already been established and agreed through the Belfast Agreement and its St Andrews re-launch.

There could be no clearer indication of interest, no clearer statement of intent, in terms of according people in Northern Ireland the full gamut of entitlements which Britishness entails, than MPs from Northern Ireland participating in government. That is what the Conservative party is offering through its alignment with Ulster Unionists. Sir Reg Empey argues the case in today’s News Letter, emphasising that Conservatives will be standing for unequivocal, non sectarian unionism in Northern Ireland. If the Tories form the next government, it will represent an avowedly unionist party taking the reins at Westminster.

“When this (Tory deal) rolls out, people will have an opportunity to vote for candidates at elections who are very likely to form the next British Government and will have real power in decisions over taxes and fuel duties and influence over interest rates and the overall economy. And while I am 100 per cent supportive of devolution, I am also 100 per cent supportive of our place in the United Kingdom and that side of our constitution. This link with the Conservatives means we can have our cake and eat it if you like – by being involved in both governments that matter to our region.”

Since 1990 much has changed within the UK. Asymmetric devolution has arrived and nationalism has hitched itself to an anti-Labour protest vote in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is more secure and arguably Scotland’s less so. In his comments to the paper, Sir Reg Empey stresses that Ulster unionism must position itself within the broader argument for the Union and he is absolutely correct. It is this context which has refocused national political parties on the unionist imperative and has afforded secular, non sectarian Northern Irish unionism an opportunity to assert itself in the broader unionist family.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are being offered an opportunity. It is an opportunity which promises strong and enduring membership of the United Kingdom consolidated by full participation in British national politics. It is an opportunity which can bring untold benefits, but as a corollary, carries with it responsibilities. Ulster unionism must show that its commitment to the United Kingdom is real and amounts to more than a symbol of community identification. It must demonstrate that its vision of the Union is generous enough to accord with the realities of modern Britain. If it is up to those tasks, it can begin at last to carve out a meaningful role at the centre of government and in robustly defending the whole Union.

It is a prospect which is as exciting as it is enticing.


Timothy Belmont said...

Whilst Integration may well be unattainable - unachievable- for people like me, I cordially welcome the process of integration between the UUP and the conservatives. I freely admit that I have not voted Ulster Unionist since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. However, times have changed; we have moved on; and I wish to give the new partnership a fair wind.


Chekov said...

Good to hear Tim. I think the best that can be achieved is integration of involvement. Devolution unfortunately is here to stay. But we can start actively making Northern Ireland a more active part of the UK political scene and that has to be good.

Anonymous said...

Great article - as insight as ever.
As good if not better than Mick's piece on Brassneck the other day!
Bob Wilson

Aidan said...

"Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is more secure"
Your analysis is that this alliance with the Conservatives will allow "full participation in British national politics".
However, surely there is a very large elephant in the room. NI is a massively subsidized region of the UK. If it were a normal part of the UK then the British state would not account for 63% of all economic activity (see here).
I agree that the union is safe because 50% + 1 cannot occur when the economy is getting such a massive fiscal transfer.
So yes unionists are in a safe position constitutionally but would unionism be so safe if the northern state had to be self-sufficient? Isn't that what Conservative voters would want?

Chekov said...


There are regions of the UK, as in any country, which are net contributors of finance and those which are not. The aim would be to reduce any of the regions which are not, but that does not in any way compromise their participation in the UK. You may as well say that the North East or Merseyside aren't normal regions of the UK. Or Scotland for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Because NI is not self sufficent today does not mean that that should not be the long term objective.

It will however take a change in the attitude of the people who live here and one where the economy means a lot more than the border.

We need bold political moves not tinkering at the edges if we are to take the first faltering steps down that long road to self sufficiency.