Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Party conference was an exciting event. From early morning there was a buzz around the Ramada Hotel which was not solely attributable to the political stardust conferred by a high profile visitor. A deal with the Conservative Party has instilled in Ulster Unionists a new sense of purpose and SF / DUP’s lamentable performance in government has convinced many that voters will respond to the ‘new politics’ which are on offer.
David Cameron will lead the new political force which his party’s alliance with the UUP creates. The sustained, spontaneous applause which greeted his arrival in the hotel’s conference hall, suggests that the vast majority of Ulster Unionist party members welcome his leadership. He duly delivered a carefully calibrated speech which was designed to buoy the unionist audience and set out the political vision which has informed his decision to seek alignment with Sir Reg Empey’s party.
At the heart of the deal lies Cameron and Empey’s mutual belief that Northern Ireland must access the same political opportunities as the rest of the UK. If voters here are truly to realise the democratic rights and entitlements which accompany their citizenship, they must have the means to vote for a force which can form government. The political integrationism which underpins a pan-UK unionist outlook has been stunningly revived under these two party leaders. Northern Ireland’s current status is, to borrow Cameron’s own phrase, ‘semi-detached’. It need not be for much longer.
This is unionism at its most constructive. It is not only about maintaining and nurturing the Union, it is about playing as full a part in its workings as possible. It is a vision which is inclusive, attractive across the community spectrum, but it is also unequivocal about its unionist credentials. If David Cameron becomes the next Prime Minister he will uphold the will of the people of Northern Ireland as regards the constitution, whatever that will might be, he will work closely and constructively with the neighbouring Irish Republic, but he has spelt out in no uncertain terms that his preference is to maintain the Union.
Why should it be otherwise? If a coherent case is to be advanced that our Union offers an efficient, beneficial and inclusive form of government, how is it possible not to argue that Northern Ireland should benefit from its continued membership of the United Kingdom? Cameron is simply being consistent about his unionism.
“I passionately believe in the Union and the future of the whole of the United Kingdom”, he reiterated on Saturday morning, “We’re better off together – England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – because we all bring our strengths to the mix”. When Mr Cameron affirmed his interest, “both selfish and strategic”, in Northern Ireland, he was not only uttering the words every unionist in the audience wished to hear and healing a running sore. He was stating the blindingly obvious.
Those who have rubbished the alignment based on ‘dry electoral statistics’ were condemned in Cameron’s speech. He is doing this deal with Ulster Unionists, because the two parties are compatible and can forge the type of unionist movement which both leaders envisage. It is a movement which will be moderate and committed to ‘progressive ends by conservative means’. The inference is clear. The ascendant ‘unionist’ party in Northern Ireland does not share the sensibilities of modern Conservatives and the Tory leader was not going to be precluded from doing what he believed right simply to avoid antagonising an intolerant party of Little Ulstermen.
Stormy applause marked the conclusion of the Conservative leader’s speech and it deserved the acclaim. As an exposition of what this Conservative and Unionist movement can deliver, as a mission statement of the principles on which it is based, Cameron and his speech writers did a sterling job. The two parties which form this force must now begin to communicate its message to potential voters with similar clarity and precision.