Friday, 21 November 2008

National UK politics for Northern Ireland (or 'we're unionists, now let's start acting like it')

I hailed the joint statement from David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey, in which the two leaders’ intention to forge a Conservative and Ulster Unionist political movement was announced, back in July. From its inception, I predicted that the two party working group set up to further these aims would encounter difficulties, but that the higher purpose behind it should prevail. At the moment Sir Reg Empey went public on this, there was no other game in town for the Ulster Unionist party. Having promised Northern Ireland national politics, having pledged to develop a pan-UK unionist movement, to renege on those commitments would have spelled disaster for the UUP and Empey personally. The jump was made when the statement was released, there was no going back.

So it has proved. Agreeing to meld two historically linked, but separate parties, each with its respective identity and political baggage, into a single electoral force, has not by any means been easy. Members and representatives have expressed doubts. It would be surprising if many of those doubts do not remain. But despite moments of hesitation and prevarication, the Ulster Unionist leadership has shown its mettle and reached an agreement which is significantly to the benefit of unionism. It goes without saying that I am delighted at the consensus arrived at in two east Belfast hotels last night that the movement will be created, and secular, national, unionist politics will be offered to the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Reg Empey has offered considerable leadership to his party in masterminding the rapprochement between national Conservatism and regional Ulster Unionism. He has shown a generosity of vision which reflects what unionism can be and should be in Northern Ireland. When I met shadow secretary of state, Owen Paterson MP, to discuss the Conservative outlook on a pan-UK unionist force, his enthusiasm for the idea and the commitment of his party shone through. This has come about because both parties share a common vision of what the Union should be about and passionately believe that Northern Irish people should have access to a meaningful voice at Westminster.

O’Neill cautions that agreement last night is only a beginning. Undeniably, he is correct. The foundations have now been put in place on which this movement will be built, but it will also take hard work and application to develop secular, inclusive, pan-UK unionism and to attune Northern Irish politicians' ears properly to national politics. The vital framework is now in place, but the two parties’ relationship must develop and the type of politics which has been promised must be delivered.

Welcoming last night’s developments, David Cameron reiterated what those politics consist in,

“It will give all the people of Northern Ireland, for the first time in decades, a new choice in politics. For too long Northern Ireland has been outside of the mainstream of politics in the United Kingdom. This new political force will help change that, and allow everyone in Northern Ireland to participate fully in political life both in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.”

Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is secure. Unionists in Northern Ireland can now begin to participate in its politics.

1 comment:

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