NI Conservatives can’t avoid identity politics

I’ve always understood the historic “Conservative and Unionist” collaboration, but never the imperative to forge this in the haphazardly thought out and implemented UCUNF, as reviewed by Owen Polley (10 June).

The Unionist link with mainland Conservatives was partly the result of local hostile reaction to Gladstone’s Liberals threatening home rule.

Irish Liberalism died out, but remained in the North in the form of the Ulster Liberals, which Reverend Albert McElroy stewarded through the 1950s and 1960s.

However, both the Ulster Liberals and the Northern Ireland Labour Party were suddenly eclipsed by the new force of the day Alliance Party, which was founded in part due to the recognition that identity avoidance was untenable in Northern Ireland; for 40 years Alliance has been the cross-community alternative.

The legacy of the Ulster Liberals may provide food for thought for the NI Tories.

There is a small organisation of Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland, which maintains formal links with the federal party of the Liberal Democrats.

For at least 20 years, the NI Lib Dems have had a pragmatic policy of not standing in elections, deferring to the selection of Alliance Party candidates.

Alliance has only a sister relation with the Lib Dems. So, for example, Alliance MPs may work closely with Lib Dems on matters of mutual concern, but remain free to vote in the best interest of constituents in Northern Ireland. There is no question of applying a Lib Dem whip; Naomi Long MP sits on the Opposition benches.

This pragmatic arrangement applies to Alliance members with affiliations for other parties.

By contrast, we have seen what happens when you try to force a formal arrangement where it just wont’ go. For Sylvia Hermon MP to be compelled to leave the Unionists is an incredible UCUNF own goal.

This underlines the need to recognise the saliency of identity politics in Northern Ireland, with the need to be flexible about ideologies, in order to deliver better government for all.

For either alternative — parties that ignore communal identities and parties who go tribal — does not reflect the reality of our multiple and interdependent relationships on these islands.

Allan Leonard was former General Secretary of the Alliance Party and a former Chair of the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats.

The old baggage that came with the New Force must go

Where now for the Ulster Unionists’ UCUNF partners in the Conservative Party, asks Owen Polley

Thursday, 10 June 2010

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The Ulster Unionists are not the only group engaged in a post-election rethink after UCUNF’s failure to return an MP.

Northern Ireland Conservatives are also considering their own party’s future, having contributed time and resources to an unsuccessful joint venture.

In spite of the UUP moving quickly to start its selection procedure for next year’s Assembly elections, there is, as yet, no suggestion the Tories might be asked by their Westminster and European election partners to play a role at Stormont.

That leaves the Northern Ireland Conservatives with a dilemma. Should they make arrangements to stand against their former Ulster Unionist allies at the Assembly poll? Or wait to see whether something can be salvaged from UCUNF?

The Tories could wait until autumn to make a decision in the hope that the UUP’s intentions will become clearer after a new leader is appointed. However, at grassroots, there remains resentment and a belief that local Conservative voices were sidelined in the election.

The party made a significant financial investment in UCUNF and, last month, its area treasurer resigned, citing reluctance to “underwrite the UUP as a viable political going concern”.

If Ulster Unionists engage in a lengthy wrangle about the Conservative link, or decide to pursue rapprochement with the DUP, Tory activists’ patience could run out.

There is already a feeling among some Northern Ireland Conservatives that their non-sectarian credentials have been tarnished by allying with the UUP.

Jeff Peel, a prominent Tory defector from UCUNF, has criticised his former colleagues’ decision to embrace the Ulster Unionists. He believes that local Conservatives should campaign on a pro-UK platform, but avoid the ‘unionist’ tag.

Now some members suggest a new centre-right political party should be formed, exclusive to Northern Ireland and neutral on the constitutional question.

Seymour Major, a prolific Tory party blogger, has started a campaign for a separate organisation with a new name and would seek to align with the Conservatives at Westminster, but remain agnostic on the Union. The contention is that unionism has become toxic in Northern Ireland and the Tories at national level are indelibly linked to it. This breed of local Conservative doesn’t just want to keep the UUP at arm’s length, they feel the same about David Cameron.

Their difficulty is that any new party would start with an even smaller base than the Northern Ireland Tories.

In a devolved UK, constitutional issues are part of everyday debate and, by ducking the border issue entirely, a neutral centre-right group here could not offer either equal citizenship or normal politics.

But there is a strong alternative view, which argues that the existing party should press ahead with its Conservative and Unionist branding – with or without the UUP.

The New Force tag should be dropped and much of the baggage for which UCUNF was ridiculed could be shed with it.

By embracing this approach the Northern Ireland Conservatives would also be ideally placed to attract disillusioned Ulster Unionists, if the UUP decides to go down the ‘unionist unity’ route.

Indeed, the Northern Ireland Tories could emerge strengthened from a realignment in unionism.

Stiff resistance within the UUP to any DUP link is likely and there remains an influential section of the party convinced that the Conservative pact was a positive strategy.

Indeed, a Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist party would make a natural vehicle for secular unionism, without Orange trappings and an ideal partner for David Cameron’s Government.

If the local Tories instead decide that having a view on the province’s constitutional future can be equated with sectarianism, they will quickly return to relative obscurity.

Owen Polley is a unionist blogger and commentator

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