Andrew Feldman, the Conservative chairman, visited Bangor yesterday to open the party’s new campaign headquarters. He subsequently addressed a dinner in North Down, setting out the Tories’ plans in Northern Ireland, in a speech which should boost morale among local activists.
Feldman made significant assurances to Conservatives here. The Northern Ireland party wants to be treated just like it would in any other region of the United Kingdom - last night the chairman pledged to do just that and to ensure that local Tories have “the tools to succeed”.
His motives have been questioned elsewhere, but let’s be blunt: if Conservative Central Office had any intention of cutting Northern Ireland Conservatives adrift it wouldn’t sink more time and resources into the organisation here.
Yet Feldman opened the new office and pledged to staff it with a full time employee paid for by CCHQ. The new staff member will report to one of the party’s most senior campaign directors and access the Conservatives’ state of the art campaign resources.
That’s a serious commitment. It certainly isn’t a sentimental concession designed to placate loyal members in North Down. Politics isn’t a sentimental business and if the Conservative party centrally wasn’t dedicated to building up its profile in Northern Ireland, it would simply get out and stay out.
In the interim, Feldman spelled out what he expects from local activists. The party needs to grow its membership and its organisation on the ground. Northern Ireland is expected to play its part in a nationwide recruitment drive.
A sustained attempt to build from the ground up seems like good stout common sense and it should help ensure a solid platform to stand candidates in future elections.
There’s not a shadow of doubt that David Cameron’s unionism is genuine or that the ’one nation’ approach he brings to politics throughout the UK is still in evidence. There’s obviously been a debate within the Conservative Party about how best to bring mainstream British politics to Northern Ireland. Despite the vagaries of the debate and the frustrations of UCUNF the Tories are still determined to realise that goal.
Feldman’s visit and the tenor of his speech is a clear signal of that continued commitment. There is absolutely no obligation on the Conservative Chairman to visit Northern Ireland to rally troops for “the future of the party in this great part of the United Kingdom”.
UCUNF may be dead, but it appears that the ideals behind it are alive and kicking.