This article first appeared in the March edition of 'Fortnight' magazine. Clearly some of the material about names and so on has been overtaken by events. The title was added by the magazine.
A Conservative and Ulster Unionist joint committee was formed in January, its purpose to “bring forward proposals on manifesto commitments, branding of joint candidates and candidate selection procedures”. After David Cameron imparted an almost euphoric sense of optimism upon the UUP conference, the committee’s first meeting represented a start to the 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.
The new force’s first electoral outing will be May’s European poll, when MEP Jim Nicholson seeks re-election. Marion Little, Conservative ‘Senior Battleground Director’, a woman whose expertise helped Boris Johnson to the London mayoralty, was in attendance as the committee met for the first time. It will be professional and seasoned campaigning experience such as hers which a fully committed Tory HQ intends to bring to Northern Irish politics. Nicholson will be the initial Ulster Unionist beneficiary.
Although scepticism within the UUP over striking a deal with Conservatives has been widely reported (Chris McGimpsey, for instance, has recorded his objections in Fortnight), overwhelmingly the sense is that the parties’ values and agendas are compatible. Even the left of the UUP must concede that Cameron’s vision of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ offers an attractive alternative to an increasingly rudderless Labour party. Setting aside partisan political tribalism, it is hard to sustain the argument that Conservative aspirations to repair society’s fabric form a less socially aware programme than that of a government which attempted to raise taxes for the lowest earners and is persistently on the wrong side of the debate as regards civil liberties.
There do remain, however, 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. The Conservatives favour something along the lines of ‘Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party’ (although they are flexible about the ordering of words), 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 allow for 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 needs to be clear. It currently seems likely 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. 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 who nevertheless want a meaningful say in the Parliament and politics which affect them, should also find the new force an attractive option.
Perhaps the stiffest test which the entity will face lies in husbanding its response to intra-unionist bickering and in particular brickbats which will be thrown its way by the DUP during the election campaign. The Democratic Unionists, threatened on one flank by Cameron and Empey’s pan-UK unionism, and on the other by Jim Allister and his Traditional Unionist Voice, will be engaged in fevered attempts to ‘out-Prod’ their rival parties. The Conservative / UUP force’s unionism is clearly demonstrated by 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 so interpreted must be scrupulously avoided.
Although immediate success is by no means assured, both Cameron and Empey have emphasised that the Conservative / UUP project is for the long term. By advancing a coherent intellectual case the new alliance can demarcate a space for itself within Northern Ireland’s politics.
As opposed to the ‘Ourselves Alone’ unionism offered by the DUP the new force’s unionism must emphasise determination to play a full role in the politics of the nation. It must demonstrate that it represents unionism which extends to participation and contribution; offering action rather than mere words. It must show its philosophy to be unionism which consistently promotes the advantages of Union to all the people of the Kingdom, without prejudice to their ethno-religious background or perceived identity.
That is the message candidates and canvassers must hammer home over the coming years. The new political movement is about the United Kingdom and Britishness, rather than just Ulster. And its vision of the UK and Britishness is one which includes a diversity of cultures and identities.