Monday, 23 February 2009

Cameron's commitment, names and 'Unionist Unity'.

I previously commended David Shiels’ Belfast Telegraph piece on the Conservative and Ulster Unionist electoral force. He has another article at Conservative Home today, covering the same topic, which addresses a number of important points.

In previous debates regarding the new alignment, doubt has been cast on how much determination and courage David Cameron is showing by entering into a deal with Ulster Unionists. Regular commenter (and blogger) yourcousin, for instance, goes so far as to suggest that the Tory leader’s unionism is merely a pragmatic tactical guise.

Shiels rebuts any such suggestions without equivocation. He speaks of, “the determination with which the Conservative Party’s leadership has approached the mission of offering a radical break from the traditional, sectarian nature of politics in the province”. Cameron and Owen Paterson have signalled a clear departure from their party’s recent policy on Northern Ireland’s politics,

“His (Cameron’s) critics overlook the historical tensions he has had to overcome in order to sell this deal to his own party.”

The point is that this is not a risk free venture for the Conservatives by any means. It has required work, flexibility and a genuine commitment to delivering national political involvement across the whole United Kingdom.

Shiels is aware that there are problems which have yet to be overcome. He recognises UUP concerns about the new dispensation’s name, stating that many within the party wish to protect its ‘Ulster identity’. Insofar as this analysis is accurate, he is absolutely right to assert, “the UUP must not forget that the real prize is the possibility that they will reclaim the ‘Unionist’ identity which has long been sidelined in British politics”.

I have consistently argued that Ulster Unionists must take a phlegmatic approach to naming the new entity. I also believe that anxiety about their party’s continued corporate identity allied to a desire that the electoral force should as seamlessly as possible retain the vast bulk of UUP support (whatever the scope for attracting new voters might be) plays as prominent a role as any notional sentimental attachment to the word ‘Ulster’ in fuelling that apprehension. Early talk of a ‘takeover’ contributed in no small part.

I understand Tory nervousness about ‘Ulster’ featuring in the name, but although I am keen that UUP members should not be too adamant about framing a formulation which includes the word, neither should Conservatives be too precious about its inclusion. It is actually a relatively small issue, and I’m sure a compromise can be reached. In any case, there are official names and names which appear on election literature. These do not always correspond.

Although I differ slightly from Shiels’ interpretation of the naming issue, I am fully in concordance with his analysis as regards ‘Unionist Unity’. Despite the protestations of a pro DUP News Letter editorial, whilst the overall strength of the pro-Union vote in comparison to nationalist clearly remains important, ‘Unionist Unity’ is a concept often invoked for purely cynical reasons.

What the paper contends ‘has always been a commendable objective’ was actually frequently employed to prevent normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland for selfish party political reasons. It is hard to argue that when Official Unionists deployed a ‘Unionist Unity’ message to crush Northern Ireland Labour they achieved anything other than refocusing politics on the constitutional question and nurturing nationalism.

Ironically the UUP now finds itself on the other side of the argument, attempting to deliver normalised politics, and in so doing strengthen Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

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