Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Patience and flexibility the virtues required from Conservatives and Ulster Unionists

A document obtained by the BBC last week surprised nobody by revealing that the Conservative party’s preference was to merge with Ulster Unionists. The UUP was not prepared to be absorbed into the mainland organisation and instead an electoral alliance was forged, with a view to contesting the European and Westminster elections. Rather than NICUP we have UCUNF, and the Northern Ireland party’s separate identity has been preserved.

Although the ‘New Force’ got off to an ill-tempered start, calm seems mercifully to have been restored. Seymour Major reports that Jim Nicholson MEP received an enthusiastic reception at a recent Conservative dinner, drawing tempestuous applause from an audience which hailed him as ‘our candidate’. There does remain a degree of disgruntlement amongst elements of the NI Conservative Party, who feel they have been sidelined by central Tory headquarters and question Ulster Unionists’ commitment to ‘Conservatism’ (as they would define it).

Perhaps a certain degree of acrimony was inevitable as the detail of this political marriage was developed. However, without being privy to detailed discussions, it seems to me that outward harmony could have been maintained with a little more patience and a little less impetuosity.

To begin with fundamentals, I would contend that the Ulster Unionist Party is right to retain a separate political identity, certainly for the time being. Furthermore, I believe that it will be to the Conservative Party’s advantage if it allows the relationship to develop over a period of time, rather than demanding that its partner becomes instantly indistinguishable from one of its own branches.

Although the UUP’s travails have been much discussed, it remains an established party in Northern Ireland. It is the electoral strength which Ulster Unionists retain that will provide the Conservatives’ bridgehead here. Not, with the utmost respect, support held by the local Tory party.

That is not to suggest for a moment that there should be any compromise of the inclusive unionism on which this alliance has been predicated since its inception, nor is it to deny that Ulster Unionists must accept profound change in terms of image, branding and even personnel. Mark Devenport remarked on Sunday’s Politics Show that ‘for Conservatives, this is seen in a … UK wide perspective’. And that must be the vision for the UUP too. Neither a quick fix for financial woes, nor a short-term gimmick to acquire bounce from a popular prospective Prime Minister, represent compelling reasons for this project’s pursuit.

The new grouping must intend, as a joint entity, to afford people in Northern Ireland access to national politics and to offer a meaningful alliance of Conservatives and Unionists, committed to strengthening Union, across the whole United Kingdom. Its constituent parts must also subscribe fully to these aims and be prepared to undergo a little discomfort in order to achieve them. Naturally the national dynamic of this force, and the imperative of equal citizenship which it upholds, suggests the impetus of its development should be towards the larger party, which already stands in the rest of Britain. But movement in that direction should be given time in order that it can be tested against the electorate, beginning with the existing pool of Ulster Unionist and Conservative voters who clearly have to be brought with the entity if it is to gain any purchase on Northern Ireland’s politics.

As for the compatibility of Ulster Unionism with Cameron’s Conservatives, I would suggest that doubts are exaggerated. All political parties, never mind electoral alliances, are umbrella groups which encompass a diversity of views. Although built on sound conservative philosophical foundations, Cameron’s politics are constructing something of a centrist coalition. ‘Progressive conservatism’, working with Demos, continual reassurances on Conservatives’ social commitment; all grounded in ‘One Nation’ communitarianism, but also strategies calculated to appeal across a wider political spectrum than the Tories' traditional base. I do not believe that extending the coalition to encompass some of the more social democratic Ulster Unionist representatives will damage Conservatism. On the contrary I believe that they represent precisely the type of people whom Cameron is seeking to win over across the United Kingdom.

The philosophies which have animated this entity’s creation remain sound and they should continue to invigorate its election campaigns. Patience and flexibility are twin virtues which leaders on both sides much encourage if its chances of success are to be maximised. Whilst there must be evident will within Ulster Unionism to develop normal British politics in Northern Ireland, the party should be given time to enable as painless as possible a transition. Conversely there should not be undue resistance to change if that resistance is wedded only to stubborn traditionalism.

I for one remain optimistic that the two parties can get the balance right and deliver real change and a Northern Irish voice in government.


Anonymous said...

Tempestuous applause? They are easy pleased.

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