Thursday, 6 November 2008

Tories remain keen on UUP realignment

I had a rather instructive break for coffee with Owen Paterson, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and senior figures from the NI Conservatives this morning. The sense which I took away from the meeting was that Tories remain hopeful of striking a deal with the Ulster Unionists, committed to the principle of realignment and aware of the problems which still lie ahead.

The Conservative argument for the benefits of an alliance is well rehearsed. Ordinary Northern Irish people want a chance to participate in national politics, they like David Cameron's Conservatives and focus groups suggest there are votes to be won by striking a deal. If a new Conservative and Unionist movement does not transpire (and there is confidence that it will, whether now or later) a rejuvenated Conservative Party will nevertheless stand in Northern Ireland.

There is room for manoeuvre as regards the name of the new movement and the exact modalities of organisation. The bottom line is that there should not be confusion in voters' minds who exactly they are voting for. The CDU / CSU model provides a template whereby regional variations on policy are recognised, but a cleaner, more secular arrangement is envisaged for Northern Ireland.

There remains steadfast refusal to considering an electoral pact with the DUP. If a new movement is formed, it will fight both Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast, to do otherwise would disenfranchise voters in the two constituencies. Indeed South Belfast in particular is a seat which they believe can be won. Owen Paterson maintains the issue is not whether a bloc of 10 or 11 Northern Irish unionists is formed, but whether a government of 345 unionists representing a conservative and unionist movement can be forged.

The vision is unmistakeably about moving Northern Ireland beyond the current morass of identity politics. 'The Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is safe', the constitutional issue settled, Mr Paterson stated quite forcefully. But the current carve-up is simply not sustainable. Northern Ireland must edge toward voluntary coalition, albeit with power-sharing safeguards.

Whether the vision for a Conservative and Ulster Unionist movement is losing momentum on the UUP side or not, the Conservatives remain committed to the principle. For the next parliamentary election they want Ulster Unionist candidates campaigning on a Conservative platform, ready to take the Tory whip. The expectation is not that the whip would be taken during the term of the current parliament. Perhaps there is latitude there to give Lady Sylvia Hermon a little wriggle room.

This remains a wonderful opportunity for Sir Reg Empey, the UUP and Northern Ireland.


Anonymous said...

It seems as if this is edging towards some kind of nebulous agreement.

It must be in the end a union of two unionist parties both committed to the Union to have an impact on the electoral scene, a loose or ambigious agreement will be seen for what it is; an unelectable UUP that is looking to the glories of the past and unable to move into the future but instead vainly trying to grasp onto the coat tails of a resurgent Tory party to garner a few more votes.

I would be very concerned that some loose agreement cobbled together for the Euro elections will yield the worst of both worlds for Nicholson. A loss of support from the socialist wing of the UUP and little or no additional support from the centre ground or Catholic unionists could see the loss of his seat.

I would suggest that the UUP take the plunge and get on with it as it is obvious Hermon will have to go whatever happens, I suspect the Tories would not now welcome her given her opposition to them.

If the union does not progress look for a few UUP MLA's and Councillors to move to the Tories in sheer frustration at the lack of direction in the UUP.

O'Neill said...

As you know, I made my views clear on this on the Young Unionist blog-I really cannot, for the life of me, see an alternative sustainable long-term strategy for the UUP.

Paterson's point about looking beyond the parochial and towards the complete Uk picture was 100% correct- there's no point us sending even 18 Unionist MPs from NI to Westminster, if the place has shut its doors due to battles lost elsewhere in the UK and I really would take the optimistic view on this, our aim as Unionists of whatver description is to maximise the total Unionist vote, to bring as many people as possible across to our cause; we shouldn't be thinking about the dangers of losing due to split votes, but more of maximising the complete vote so much that 3 Unionist candidates can stand in every constituency, giving the punters the maximum of choices and not affecting the chances of a Unionist winning.

had a rather instructive break for coffee with Owen Paterson, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and senior figures from the NI Conservatives this morning.

I was kind of expecting after that build-up, something along the lines of "Having read my previous measured views on the politics of the region, they've offered me the position of Conservative/UUP Spokesman on the Baltic States."!!

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