The Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties have appointed members of the Joint Committee which they agreed to form in November, a statement of intent that the new force is set to be progressed early in 2009. From the Conservatives’ press release, their representatives will include, Owen Paterson MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), Neil Johnston (Conservatives NI Chairman), Jeffrey Peel (Conservatives NI Vice Chairman) and Paul Megarity (Chairman, North Down Conservatives). The Ulster Unionist members will comprise Lord Maginnis, Danny Kennedy MLA, David Campell (UUP Chairman) and Cllr. Mark Cosgrove (UUP Treasurer).
The Committee’s task will be to “bring forward proposals on manifesto commitments, branding of joint candidates and candidate selection procedures”. This is hard, practical work required to forge a political alliance which will engage in national politics, but also reflect in its policies the regional peculiarities of Northern Ireland. And although Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have declared that they share common values and compatible agendas, there will remain difficult adjustments to be made in order to marry two separate organisations, with two subtly different political cultures, into a single competitive electoral entity.
One of the preliminary hurdles which must be cleared will be naming the new force. Although it is primarily an issue of optics, the movement’s name is a tricky, sensitive matter to resolve. My information is that Conservatives favour something along the lines of ‘Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party’, whereas many UUP members are reluctant to allow the word ‘Ulster’ to be dropped. The first formulation is certainly more accurate geographically and perhaps it would afford more emphasis on the civic, inclusive nature of the unionism which candidates will espouse. On the other hand, continuity between the Ulster Unionist corporate identity, its history and political culture, and the new electoral entity should be absolutely clear. My feeling is that the UUP might have to move out of its comfort zone with the name and ensure clarity by other means.
Notwithstanding issues around the name, priority must be given to forming a coherent and attractive set of policies, attuned to the ethos of the two parties, then selling it to the Northern Ireland public. To this end Jonny Andrews has written a well-argued piece in the Belfast Telegraph outlining the basis of the Conservative / UUP deal and the benefits which it can bring to Northern Ireland. Any self-declared unionist whose unionism is in any regard tethered to commitment to, and participation in, the political life of the United Kingdom must give serious consideration to casting his or her vote for a Conservative / UUP candidate. And additionally those voters who might be ambivalent to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but nevertheless want a meaningful say in the Parliament and politics which affect them, should also find the new force an attractive option.
The first joint candidate which the two parties will field is MEP Jim Nicholson. It is imperative that a consistent and forceful message is transmitted from the off. Although the coming European election campaign might specifically involve securing Nicholson’s re-election, more generally it represents an initial opportunity to articulate to voters values which Conservatives and Ulster Unionists share, to explain the pan-UK vision which informs the electoral alliance and to demonstrate the confident, outward looking, inclusive unionism on which both sides want their alliance to be predicated. To this end the candidate and his team must be careful not to be drawn into the intra-unionist bun-fight which will characterise the TUV and DUP European election campaigns. Those two parties will be engaged in attempts to ‘out-Prod’ one another. The Conservative / UUP force’s unionism is demonstrable in commitment to the United Kingdom and its politics. It is not in question and it will certainly not be enhanced by sectarian or community posturing. Anything which might be interpreted in that way must be avoided.
Although Peter Robinson has already begun to scare-monger about Jim Allister splitting the unionist vote (that old ironic chestnut), the TUV man will doubtless retain many votes from disaffected, erstwhile DUP supporters. Against this background Nicholson has an opportunity to close the gap on Robinson’s party, which is yet to even agree a candidate. It is an exciting year for the new electoral force which can consolidate the good work which led to its creation.