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The Strange Death of Tory Ulster

I've written obituaries for political parties here on previous occasions - for the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, the Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association, and the southern Progressive Democrats. This week, to use a medical analogy, life support was turned off for the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party, though it has not yet quite stopped breathing. From the Newsletter, Sam McBride reports and Alex Kane analyses last week's decision by the Conservative headquarters in London that the party will stand no candidates for the Assembly election next year, but will support the UUP; it may stand candidates for the local council elections on the same day, but they will be expected to work with the UUP once elected. (See also commentary from Ian Parsley and "Chekov".) It's really a best possible outcome for the UUP, which now has essentially unconditional support from the main party in the UK government without the hassle of having to deal with its local activists, and a worst possible outcome for the Northern Ireland Tories, who don't even have the rather minor satisfaction of a decent burial but are being let wither on the vine.

As I've said frequently enough, I never saw any virtues in the integrationist project - the proposition that Northern Ireland should simply be treated the same way as Yorkshire by the UK's central government - let alone its 'equal citizenship' mutation - the proposition that the solution to Northern Ireland's problems would come if only the English political parties would organise and fight elections there. However, it is entirely right and fair that the latter proposition should be put to the test. I expected that it would fail that test, and I am not at all surprised that those who were most closely engaged with it have now reached the conclusion that it has indeed failed. They are of course blaming the fiendish UUP for stitching them up, and the spineless London Tories for rolling over to UUP demands, but the simple fact is that the voters never supported the project in sufficient numbers to make it viable, and so it was doomed.

Oddly enough I bumped into Tom Elliott, the new UUP leader, at a reception in Brussels on Thursday night, and congratulated him on doing in a few weeks what others had been trying to do for years, i.e. killing off the Northern Ireland Conservatives. He grinned modestly but appreciatively. His leadership has had a rocky start, with numerous high-profile defections, but this is a concrete achievement in clearing the undergrowth.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Ian James Parsley
Dec. 11th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
Strange Death of Tory Ulster
I think most of this is fair.

However, it is worth emphasising that nowhere in my analysis of the failing do I solely blame the "fiendish UUP" or the "spineless London Tories for rolling over to UUP demands" (though I fully accept that many others do). At heart, there does have to be some awareness among NI Conservatives that they were trying vastly to overplay an electorally non-existent hand (not a point they were willing to accept while I was a member, unfortunately).

In fact, I broadly accept your viewpoint that the project was worth trying, but it should be accepted that it was rejected. I was fully aware that could happen, of course, and the least I can do is recognise that reality.

However, it is worth adding that it was one thing for the people of NI to reject "mainstream UK politics" *; it is quite another for those in "mainstream UK politics" to reject NI, and most notably the type of non-sectarian politics they claimed to want to pursue.

* I myself always omitted "UK" from this term, accepting as you do that transferring English parties directly to an NI setting would probably not work - I guess my own position is best explained in terms of the view that for normalised politics to develop in NI the Alliance Party would ultimately have to split up along a NI-specific, if UK-aligned, left-right spectrum and that UCUNF was, in theory at least, a means of speeding this up.
Dec. 11th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Strange Death of Tory Ulster

Thanks for the response. I should also say that I thought your resignation post was one of the most elegant mea culpa statements I have ever read.

I don't really blame Conservative Central Office for deciding to dump the NI Tories. I think that decision was dictated by the failure of the project, and the failure of the project was by and large brought about by the voters. Yes, it means going back on a pledge to treat Northern Ireland as electorally identical to the rest of the UK; but the lesson from that is that one should be cautious about making pledges, and prepared to deal with reality rather than fantasy.

I think also that the UK government at central level can play a more useful role in NI when it doesn't have local political proxies, and that Cameron and Paterson, once in government, realised this too; but the major factor was certainly the electoral failure of the project.

I don't have a view of what 'normalised politics' could look like in Northern Ireland. I frankly doubt that the political system will ever change to the point where the community divide is not the main line of political cleavage. In my view the task of the middle ground in such a situation is to ensure that those who dislike the notion of being categorised continue to have a voice, and to prevent the collapse of the political system into the binary dynamic which essentially defines politics in Belgium or Cyprus. Attempts to expand that issue by bringing in ideology or external linkages are of dubious value, as the experience of the NI Conservatives proves.

Edited at 2010-12-11 05:18 pm (UTC)
Ian James Parsley
Dec. 12th, 2010 08:57 am (UTC)
Re: Strange Death of Tory Ulster
Nick - agreed (on the basis not just of reason but also experience), though I guess I have to be a little more optimistic. I think if the Alliance Party really emphasises the costs of segregation in the current climate (and not just financially) and appeals to the growing sense of "Northern Irish" identity, it could grow during the 2010s to the extent that "depillarisation" becomes possible.
Dec. 11th, 2010 09:02 pm (UTC)
Unconditional support from the main party in the UK government
I'll be interested to see if this support is returned by the UUP, and in what ways.
Also, if this brings them some Westminster seats in another tight election, I'd be intrigued to see how any coalition talks are affected.
Dec. 12th, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
I was interested to read this. My father was Chair of the South Belfast Conservatives for a few years back in the 1970s, and stood for election a couple of times though he never got elected. But I think he knew a lost cause when he met one.
Dec. 14th, 2010 09:28 am (UTC)
Strange Death of Tory Ulster
So what next? I think that whilst the desire exists for non-sectarian, tribal politics, which the UUP cannot escape, it is not yet the case that Alliance can answer the desire for centre right, conservative politics; it is too non division obsessed. A new home grown political party to try to fill the vacuum? While the OO exists the UUP cannot hide from its tentacles. Am I the only person in NI who feels sure that Tom is going to veer towards unionist unity & put NI back 20 years.
Dec. 14th, 2010 11:05 am (UTC)
Re: Strange Death of Tory Ulster
You aren't the only only one, but you are as equally wrong as they are. Unionist Unity is kicked far into the long grass, and if the AV system comes into play then any advantage it could bring is completely gone. As for the NI Conservatives, they brought down their own demise, and did more than any other group to undermine the UCUNF project (apart from whoever cam up with the name that is) their senior members calling for a ban on OO members being allowed to stand was the first of many spanners they threw in the works. Few will mourn their demise, in fact few will even know they have gone.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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