Thursday, 13 May 2010

Paterson need apologise to no-one for campaigning in Northern Ireland

If the new Westminster coalition can do only one thing for Northern Ireland it should drag our infantilised politicians kicking and screaming into the harsh glare of reality. We are not the centre of the universe, we cannot expect to be handled with kid-gloves forever and the British government’s role here is not to referee an unruly band of squabbling children, it is to administer national government.

The parties can ‘sqweam’ as much as they like about special circumstances, republican terrorism or the Tories lack of mandate. The new government draws its mandate from the whole of the UK and its remit covers Northern Ireland just as it covers Wales and Scotland. If you don’t like it, by all means argue for our departure from the United Kingdom.

Owen Paterson’s appointment as Northern Ireland secretary has drawn the predictable chorus of ’not fairs’. The Belfast Telegraph has dutifully compiled them to splash on its front page. Head of the queue is Margaret Ritchie, demanding Paterson ’build bridges’ for having the audacity to run an election campaign in this part of the United Kingdom and subsequently hold office here too.

In his article (not yet online), David Gordon raises doubts about the new Secretary of State’s ability to act as an ’honest broker’ and cites his party leader making jibes at the ’Swish family Robinson’. It’s wearily depressing, given the professional way Lib Dems and Conservatives have buried their differences, in the national interest, at Westminster.

The Belfast Telegraph conspicuously campaigned during the general election campaign for ‘normal politics‘. Well here are some normal politics. The regional secretaries of states, throughout the UK, represent the government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In a democracy the government will generally be a political party which has competed for votes against other parties.

A national government certainly doesn’t require a separate mandate in each separate region, but it will have fought its corner there, with rival parties, and all the political rough and tumble that entails. Owen Paterson shouldn’t have to build bridges any more than any other representative of the government and he certainly shouldn’t have to apologise for his party seeking votes in this part of the United Kingdom.


David Gordon said...

Just a couple of points:
A central criticism of UCUNF was not about the Tories seeking a mandate here. It was that they did so not on their own merits but in a unique electoral pact with a party allied to one section of the community.
Senior figures in this local party are in no way Tories, but went along with the whole thing seemingly in the hope of having a pro-Union friend in Downing Street. Quite why they needed such a comfort blanket given the now widespread acceptance of the consent principle is an interesting question.
I will also mention Hatfield House and Fermanagh South Tyrone without making further comment.

Chekov said...

David - I interpreted your article as reporting rather than comment, but now that you raise these points.

The Conservatives have involved themselves in Northern Ireland on the basis that they are a pro-Union party. Not only are they entitled to do that, but it's the only logical stance for the 'Conservative and Unionist' party. They formed a pact with historical allies and a party that is, for the most part, on the centre right. Perfectly right and proper. Whether you agree with the politics or not isn't even the point. The Tories are perfectly entitled to pursue their own political interests in Northern Ireland in the manner they see fit. And a British party can and should emphasise its political unionism, and cooperate with people it thinks share that outlook, without perpetual squealing about the peace process.

David Gordon said...

The article you referenced was a report, but there was also some analysis/commentary in an accompanying profile of Owen P. I can't buy your notion of the UUP as centre right. It had always sought votes from across the spectrum, and included people who would be Labour if they lived across the water. The post-war UUP government at Stormont swiftly adopted the Attlee welfare reforms, while Tory Bufton Tufton types were ranting about communism. Unionism has always been an all-class alliance, capable of sounding true blue one day and wrapping itself in the red flag the next. The DUP's stalwart opposition to "Cameron cuts" - without a hint of irony - is a case in point.

Chekov said...

David - It would be a strange situation if everyone who favoured maintaining the Union were of one voice as regards national politics, but I don't think it's unfair to characterise the UUP as a party where the bulk of members lean toward the centre right. It certainly sought votes from across the spectrum, but it is generally happier leaning toward the Tories. The UUP did swiftly adopt welfare reform post-War. At that point the idea of integration into the UK mainstream still meant something. It was important to the UUP that NI didn't go too far out on a limb. A sense which was lost, the further we travelled from partition, and the more addicted to devolution we became. It's also fair to point out that the Conservatives fairly swiftly embraced the post-War consensus and that that held pretty much until Thatcher arrived.

peteram79 said...

Unionism could afford to be muddled in its position on the right-left spectrum when its central tenet remained basically a single issue removed from that spectrum. It's a luxury also afforded to the suppopsedly Marxist, socially hard right Sinn Fein as well.

However, if and when a party attempts to move away from this single issue, it has to position itself somewhere and centre-right is the UUP's natural home. If this is incompatible with the views of some (e.g. McGimpsey) within the party, that's unfortunate but unavoidable.

That said, I agree with Chekov that whether or not some within the UUP do not fit in well under a Tory banner is a side issue, some might even say a distraction from the main point.

There is no objective reason why the Tories should be criticised for a decision to fight elections in NI. The twin strands of nationalism and "little ulsterism" have their own subjective reasons for doing so. Why a supposedly independent newspaper should give such unquestioning oxygen to these partial opinions is distinctly odd.

David Gordon said...

This is a worthwhile debate, and I hope the Belfast Telegraph will be able to encourage a wider debate on the future of NI politics.
I'll conclude with one more point. When the cuts come here, watch out for UUP politicians joining in the general chorus of "Down with this sort of thing". That's what local parties do.

Chekov said...

I think you might have a point there. And, as you'll appreciate, I certainly don't believe that UCUNF was perfect.

However, it's important to recognise that the source of much of the ire about the pact comes from people who are appalled that Northern Ireland might move toward normal left-right British politics. Either they fear they will be made irrelevant, or because unionism's incorrigibility feeds disillusion with Northern Ireland's UK status.

I am a little resentful that those voices were able to form a successful alliance of convenience with the centre-left, who simply don't like the Conservatives. Their priority should be to get left-leaning unionism up and running in Northern Ireland, not to form 'Anyone But the Tories' pacts with the extremes.

UCUNF is flawed, it made a botch of some things, but it had some very positive things in its favour.

Chekov said...

*Either they fear they will be made irrelevant, or they believe unionism's incorrigibility feeds disillusion with Northern Ireland's UK status, and they fear a more thoughtful, wide ranging unionist party.

slug said...

I just think Gordon is wrong.

The UUP fits very naturally in the centre-right of European and British politics.

A party that favours grammar schools over comprehensives, that is generally tough on law and order, emphasises family values etc.

There is little in terms of POLICY in the Conservative manifesto that many UUP persons could really object to.

I think that the label Gordon uses is instructive: "Tory". Its more a cultural thing than anything. Gordon associates Conservatives with Toffs from England. "Tory" is indeed not a very Northern Irish thing. But the actual policies of the two parties are not different.

That's why I have suggested that the UUP develop more of a middle-NI image, while retaining the policy link on Westminster matters, and retain the fature that elected MPs could be in the government.

For Gordon and other left leaning people, using the word Tory is just used as a kind of intellectual laziness.

While UUP voters would not call themselves Tories its hard to see what they'd object to in the policy platform of the Conservatives.

Unless you think UUP people have a Greek-like belief in running budget deficits.

slug said...

When I say: "That's why I have suggested that the UUP develop more of a middle-NI image, while retaining the policy link on Westminster matters, and retain the fature that elected MPs could be in the government."

And what I mean is that a lesson from UCUNF is that a little cultural distance can be put between UUP and Conservatives.

Part of it is branding. "First Trust" in NI was the same bank as AIB in the south but the branding was less southern. So too with the UUP you don't have to push the Conservative brand so much. The UUP brand is more NI-friendly and is familiar.

Part of it is a little more UUP autonomy in the relationship. As part of this the UUP should be trusted by the Conservatives to select its own candidates.

Something like the pre-1985 arrangement, but without the pre-1985 politics!

All of this would deflect some of the ammunition from those who throw about the word "Tory" as though that is enough to end the argument.

rutherford said...

David Gordon -

"Unionism has always been an all-class alliance, capable of sounding true blue one day and wrapping itself in the red flag the next."

That is true - but the Belfast Telegraph has went too far in it's OTT editorial stance against the CU project. And from a paper that professed in the not-so-distant past to hold a liberal unionist editorial stance (when did that change btw?).

The CUs are not about turning all of unionism true blue Tory, but about efficiently introducing the real politics apparently craved by so many including the BT here. The alliance lost 30k votes but gained 100k - telling us the majority of the UUP support base are centre-right. Whether unionism as a whole is more right or left is not the issue so you've framed your argument incorrectly.

The paper's stance has been contradictory at best, and the debate would be nice. Wouldn't it have been better to do this prior to preaching your conclusions however?