The basis of the Cameron / Empey accord is that Northern Ireland in general, and unionism in particular, will benefit from removing myopic preoccupation with the constitutional position from our politics. By concentrating on normal, bread and butter issues and integrating with the broader British party political system, not only will Northern Ireland’s electorate be better served by its politicians, but the fact that the Union is secure will be rightly recognised. Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain is no longer under any imminent threat. By fully participating in the politics of the United Kingdom, unionists can only serve to further underpin the Union’s security by refocusing on issues which flow from membership of that Union, rather than its existence and Northern Ireland’s status within it. To quote Cameron,
“a new Conservative and Unionist force ..would challenge the convention of Northern Ireland politics. It would challenge the notion that Northern Ireland politics always has to be dominated by the constitutional issue.”
Forging the new Conservative and Unionist force has had its problems. Shiels is right to contend that an element of UUP mistrust had to be overcome, an element which drew, at least to an extent, on unfortunate precedent. Both the United Kingdom itself, and the two parties forging a new relationship, have changed since previous abortive indications of rapprochement. Although Ulster unionists might point to previous occasions where they perceive that they have been let down by Conservative governments, Conservatives could equally observe that the UUP has not always adhered to the inclusive vision of unionism on which this movement will be predicated. This is the right time for both sides to set aside reservations. Shiels argues,
“The UUP's caution about the deal is understandable, but they must recognise that Mr Cameron's actions represent a controversial over-turning of the pragmatic and disinterested attitude that has long characterised Tory thinking towards Northern Ireland.”
It is important that both sides enter this arrangement fully committed to the changes it will bring. It is only by offering a genuine alternative that the new political force will prosper. Cameron speaks of a, “Conservative version of Unionism firmly rooted in a modern, pluralist United Kingdom.”, which he is determined to offer voters. It is important that the UUP shares this conception and that the Conservatives, for their part, retain the vision of communitarian conservatism, based on innate respect for society, which they have promised will deliver ‘progressive ends by conservative means’.
Concluding his article, Cameron appeals to the electorate here, “we’re making great progress. I call on the people of Northern Ireland to support us. It’s time for change”. To borrow a phrase from his new political bedfellow, let’s stop ‘arsing about’ and engage in real politics in Northern Ireland. The change to which Cameron refers will self-evidently be beneficial to unionism. Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain is safe, now we must concentrate on making our status as an integral part of the United Kingdom work and work well.