To those of you who might know me, I ran a blog called Tory Story NI. I started writing posts on that blog just after the announcement of the Conservative – UUP pact that was the UCUNF project. There were two core principles at the centre of that project. One was that Northern Ireland people should be given the opportunity to vote, at a Westminster Election, for a party that could form the Government of the United Kingdom. The other was to move Northern Ireland politics away from tribal or sectarian politics towards “issue” or “bread and butter” politics.
Until a few months before the election, there was optimism that we had a new product to bring to the Northern Ireland electorate which would change the course of Northern Ireland politics. It was not to be. As soon as the news broke of the talks at Hatfield House, it was obvious to me and many others that the game was up.
UCUNF should have been much more successful at the election than it was. That it failed was in no small part due to prevarication within the Ulster Unionist Party over doing deals with the DUP and talk of unionist unity – notions which were completely inconsistent with what the project was about. It was also badly led or, to put it another way, there was no leadership at all from the UUP. It was not the fault of most of the candidates either. Many of them were fresh faces. From what I heard, saw and read about them, there was certainly talent on display during the General Election.
The UUP was never in a fit state to be the evangelists of the new politics. That was entirely foreseeable and I am left wondering what the evaluation of risk was when Conservative officials carried out their due diligence on the UUP. The agreement between the UUP and the Conservative Party was signed on 20th November 2008 – yet only two months prior to that, Sir Reg Empey was prevaricating on a possible deal on the Euro Elections with Jim Allister. That should have been a warning sign of the problems which lay ahead.
The UCUNF project is now dead, no matter what anybody does from now on to try and resurrect it. Very few Northern Ireland Conservatives want any further deal with the UUP. If there is any attempt to resurrect it, it will fail.
Having reached that view, I have asked myself what the Conservative Party can achieve on its own in Northern Ireland. In trying to answer that question, I have considered the position of Nationalist voters who, if the decks were cleared of sectarian politics, would want to vote for a centre-right party. Nobody represents these electors – certainly not the SDLP. Unfortunately, for all its claims to be a non-sectarian party in Northern Irish politics, neither can the Conservative Party.
In reaching this view, I have taken on board the fact, constantly repeated by Conservative leaders, that the constitutional position is settled and so there is no reason not to vote for a party which is nearest to your shared values. Unfortunately, it is much more complex than that.
One of the core ideals of the Conservative Party is that all of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom are one nation. The Good Friday agreement may have locked in the principle of majority consent to determine the Consitutional position but it also recognises the right of citizens to retain British or Irish identity. For that reason alone, Northern Ireland is not the same as any other part of the United Kingdom. In acknowledging that, I have reached the view that there needs to be a new approach on Northern Irish political identity that is conducive to bringing about normal politics.
A problem which the Conservative party has failed to get to grips with in Northern Ireland (or Scotland for that matter) is that of political toxicity.
Toxicity exists when a political party can do nothing through conventional campaigning to persuade voters to vote for them because of underlying prejudice against that political party. The source of such prejudice is usually not understood by voters who are affected by it but the prejudice will have been handed down to them because of the actions of the political party in the past. For example, the Conservatives are often portrayed as the party who are against people from working class backgrounds. A certain section of the electorate will continue to believe that no matter what the Conservatives say or do.
Within Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, Unionism, much more than Conservativism is a toxic political brand. In the main, this is linked to the political oppression of the Catholic community during the years prior to direct rule in 1972. I would like to think that the name “Conservative” is non-toxic. It would be folly to claim that it is free from it. After all, it was the Conservatives who originally opposed land reform in Ireland in the 19th Century. It was the Conservatives who opposed home rule. It was the Conservatives who continued an alliance with the Ulster Unionists during a period of diminished civil rights in the 20th century.
There are very few ways to alleviate toxicity. The problem has exercised my mind and I have put forward ideas to deal with it here and here. Ironically, being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats could help the Conservatives to cure their toxicity problem in Scotland to a degree. However, re-branding is usually the only option available for de-toxifying a political movement or party. Probably the best example of successful detoxification of an institution by re-branding is the transformation, through the Patten reforms, of our police force from the RUC to the PSNI.
I have already said that the Northern Ireland Conservative Party should be independent of the Main Conservative Party. I also advocated that the Conservative Party should be re-branded, though I did not say what should be in the re-branding package. I certainly believe that the name should be changed. Bound up with the problem of toxicity is community identity.
Bound up with community identity is National identity. Some people from the unionist community would regard the retention of the unionist identity as a crucial factor in making their decision to join the Conservative party. By contrast, it is practically impossible to attract Nationalists, even if they are natural Conservatives, to become involved in a political party which has a unionist identity.
Most good right-thinking people in Northern Ireland want to see the people of Northern Ireland having a shared future. What does that mean in practice?
Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP leader, keeps repeating her party’s desire for a shared future. But does she really expect that you can remain in opposite tribal political camps and have a shared society without the community discord that we see today? Things are better than they were. The “troubles” are over. The dissident republican threat is under control. The sectarian divide seems to be almost invisible when we go out to the shops and the restaurants. Unfortunately, it rears its ugly head when it comes to politics or cultural expression. Unfortunately, large swathes of Northern Ireland society are still living limited lives because they were brought up under a sectarian social and political system. A political party which continues to identify with unionism or nationalism will never be able to bring about a genuine shared future.
I would like to see our political party being of equal attraction to both Unionists and Nationalists who would otherwise support a centre-right party. That can only happen if we have an independent party for Northern Ireland which does not have a unionist or nationalist identity. Is that so bad?
It does not mean that we should lose our links with the main Conservative Party. It does not mean that we can not share national policy. It certainly does not mean that we can not have a say in who governs the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, a centre-right party for Northern Ireland that is neither unionist nor nationalist in identity can bring together the best political talent from both communities. A centre-right party without a unionist or nationalist identity can become a microcosm of how we want our shared society to be. It means that we can share the journey as well as the destination. A centre-right party for Northern Ireland would put Northern Ireland at the heart of its policy making and be for the people of our region. Such a party can lead the way in bringing the people into a genuine shared future where we no longer regard some of our neighbours as “one of them” but where we consider all of them to be “one of us.”
I have thus far avoided mentioning the Alliance Party. That party is certainly uppermost in my thoughts. It is a source of inspiration that, at last, they seem to be taking strides towards breaking the political mould. It was important, for their credibility as a cross-community party, that they adopted an agnostic political position on sovereignty.
There is no reason why a strong cross-community centre-right party should not come to political prominence in Northern Ireland. It will not be the Conservative Party in its present form. Will it change along the lines that I have suggested?
Conservatives on both sides of the Irish Sea need to debate, absorb and accept these brutal truths. I hope the Conservative leadership comes around to understanding that this is the right way forward. If they fail to do that within a reasonable time, then it is likely that a new Centre Right Party will emerge along the lines that I have suggested.