A discussion about preferred candidates on Redemption’s Son led Ignited to suggest that the current Ulster Unionist initiative had been tried before, when Robert McCartney and others spearheaded the ‘Campaign for Equal Citizenship’ back in the nineteen eighties. I countered that McCartney had never seriously threatened to deliver an arrangement whereby Northern Irish candidates had a good chance of being elected as members of a governing party at Westminster. Undoubtedly, though, current developments do appeal to similar impulses as the CEC. If the internet had been widely available in 1986, and had I been a peculiarly politically precocious nine year old, ’Three Thousand Versts’ would almost certainly have been coloured by an integrationist hue.
During the early part of that decade James Molyneaux was proud of his links with Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Under the influence of Enoch Powell, there was an integrationist bent to his politics. But the party was also possessed of a strong devolutionist wing. In his ‘History of the Ulster Unionist Party’ Graham Walker suggests that calls for ‘unionist unity’, allied to Ulster Unionists’ innate conservatism and unwillingness to internalise politics, which logically extrapolated would necessitate the party’s dissolution, led to McCartney’s expulsion. Sceptics, or even those who wish to steer the new dispensation in a particular direction, point to his demise, and that of 80s integrationism as a mainstream unionist idea, as evidence that it is unwise to attempt to normalise politics here in line with the rest of the UK.
Of course there are a great many factors which distinguish Northern Ireland in 2009 from Northern Ireland twenty years ago. And the Ulster Unionist Party is a considerably different institution from that which existed in the eighties. Is it legitimate to extrapolate from McCartney’s ultimate failure that we should be doomed forever to retain the same political model, stripped of the political access which mainstream Westminster parties afford? Naturally I would argue that circumstances are currently much more propitious as regards Northern Ireland’s involvement in national politics than they were in 1986. The paradox is that, to an extent, a reverse for integrationism in its purest form has facilitated movements towards part of what the CEC envisaged.
The notion that participation in national politics is necessary in order that citizens might enjoy the full gamut of rights and entitlements which accompany their citizenship is unique neither to Northern Ireland nor to the United Kingdom. Although I’d imagine few civic unionists would appreciate the comparison, I’ve observed before that VV Putin’s attempts to impose national party politics in Russia have at least partially been inspired by an urge to ‘equal citizenship’. From the perspective of a different political culture, the former Russian president’s introduction of membership quotas and minimum electoral targets, in order to sideline minority and regional parties, seems unacceptably authoritarian. But despite employing a typically Russian, top down model, Putin’s rationale was not terribly different from that which informs bottom up projects, seeking to allow British citizens in Northern Ireland access to mainstream national politics.
A legacy which Putin inherited from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was a notoriously asymmetric constitutional relationship between Moscow and its various regions. Labour’s devolution project has bequeathed to the United Kingdom its own set of devolved asymmetries. Ironically, whilst this constitutional tinkering has visited irreparable damage upon the UK as a coherent unit, it has moved Northern Ireland into a less unique position within the Union. In the nineteen eighties integrationism foresaw administrative integration, as well as party political integration. With administrative tasks devolved to Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland, the former aspiration has become less tethered to the latter. Devolution has actually facilitated Conservatives and Ulster Unionists in their project to bring Northern Irish voters the choice to vote for the next Westminster government.
The principle distinguishing factor between what the new force will set before voters and the narrative advanced by Robert McCartney is that the former is based on a concrete relationship. Although McCartney’s aspirations were admirable, as were the aspirations of Kate Hoey and other advocates of ‘equal citizenship’, they did not garner significant support from any mainland party. When the Conservatives eventually set up here in 1989, their organisation in Northern Ireland was instigated by the leadership, rather it was forced upon the party at Conference. It is not fair to say that voters in Northern Ireland have been offered before what Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are now offering.
This is something new, unique and imminently attractive to anyone in Northern Ireland who aspires to exercise to the full their citizenship of the United Kingdom.