The future will be NICER with a new Northern Ireland Centre-Right party

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.

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24 Responses to The future will be NICER with a new Northern Ireland Centre-Right party

  1. Seymour,

    Good post. Sums up a lot of my thoughts in more detail than I have the patience to articulate. I’ll drop you an email.

    (Not convinced about that acronym though!)

    • Seymour Major says:

      Shane and Andrew,

      Thank you both for your kind comments.

      As it happens, I have sent a copy of the post to Tim at Conservative Home.

      I agree that the acronym is very corny but in a way, that is part of the power of the message. Successful marketing is full of humour that makes thinking people cringe. The point is, it is successful if it sticks. Who knows if “nicer” could become a new buzzword for change in Northern Ireland politics.

  2. shane says:

    Seymour, this is an excellent post. You should write on the Platform section of Conservative Home to communicate your idea to ‘the powers that be’. Many advocating (and opposing) Scottish Tory autonomy have done so. All the best.

  3. Seymour Major says:

    Paul,

    This post is not just about what I want. However, I will explain why I would not consider joining the Alliance Party.

    It is a fact that the Alliance Party and the Green Party for that matter do not have an identity linked to preference of sovereignty. The Green Party tends towards the left of the political spectrum. The Alliance Party is perhaps not as far to the left as their Lib Dem Counterparts but they are certainly not a centre-right party. You can appreciate that by considering their policy on Education. They support the abolition of academic selection and the grammar school system.

    However, the Alliance Party could still be very important to the development of normal politics in Northern Ireland. At present, the Alliance Party is selling itself as an anti-sectarian party. Once a new non-designated centre right party emerges, they Alliance Party will be forced to compete with that party on the basis of policy only.

    I am not the first blogger to advance the case for a new Northern Ireland centre-right party and I am now not the last.

    Northern Ireland needs a new non-designated Centre-Right party which brings unionists and nationalists together. If the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservatives does not evolve into that party, a new one will emerge.

  4. owenpolley says:

    So this party would have links with the British Conservative party and sit alongside the Conservative party at Westminster, but would be entirely neutral on whether Westminster should govern Northern Ireland or not? Right.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Owen,

      Firstly, welcome to this site. I have always respected you as a writer and a progressive unionist. I also lament the fact there appears to be nobody at the top of the UUP with a political mind or political talent approaching yours.

      I will provide you with the clearest answer that I can to your questions.

      The intention would indeed be that if the party elected MPs, it would indeed sit alongside Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. Of course, it is possible that the Conservative party will reject the proposal and do another deal with the UUP. In that case, a new party would be formed from scratch and the New Party would have to earn its alliance with the Conservatives through electoral success.

      Neutrality means (a) that the party’s identity will be neither Unionist nor Nationalist; (b) as a party, it will not campaign in a future referendum to determine whether or not Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom; (c) No part of the party’s ideology will be unionist or nationalist.

      The party’s policies would be Northern-Ireland centred SUBJECT TO any policy it would be required to accept as National Conservative policy. In return for that trade-off, it would expect to have an influence on Conservative policy so that it would yield regional policies favourable to Northern Ireland for its economic development. It would also enable the Conservatives to appoint ministers from the party to go enter the Government.

      I am sure that you will agree with me that politics in Northern Ireland will continue to evolve but that nobody yet knows for sure how the evolution will pan out.

      What I have proposed is not a “normal” party. It is a party which is to be tailor-made to respond to the situation in Northern Ireland. In a sense, it has parallels to what happens (or should happen) in the Executive. There, you have a coalition of Nationalists and Unionists which is enforced. This proposal is putting a coalition of Nationalists and Unionists into a political party which has shared values on the left-right spectrum. I would suggest that this variety of politics is the gateway to a change of the system from mandatory to voluntary coalition, which is coveted by most unionists.

      As for Unionism as an ideology, you may not yet agree that it is heading towards redundancy as a dominant ideology in Northern Ireland politics. It may have been heading that way since the Good Friday agreement. That is certainly one partial interpretation of the drop in turnout in the General Election by 3%. Time will tell whether I have “read the tealeaves” correctly or not.

      Should you decide to write a critique on this, I would love to read it in the Belfast Telegraph!

    • I don’t see why not. If its official policy was merely “NI should remain part of the UK until such time as a majority votes otherwise in a referendum” – which let us remember is the principle that all major parties have now signed up to – it would be perfectly reasonable for it to sit in Westminster and make law, as it would be acting according to the will of the people. I see no contradiction.

  5. Seymour Major says:

    Paul,
    You say the initiative is madness, wouldn’t last and would just fade away very quickly.
    In that case, you need not waste any more of your time criticising it.

  6. shane says:

    Seymour, Alex Massie wrote an excellent piece on the death of Tory Scotland at the Spectator. He believes that “while it might not be impossible for a centre-right party to win 25% of the vote in Scotland, it is all but impossible for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, as currently constituted, to do so.[…]In fact it seems to me that the centre-right cause would be enhanced if the Scottish Tory party were wound-up as soon as possible. For, frankly, the case for centre-right (not even right-wing!) politics is jeopardised and tarnished by its association with a party that has come to be seen as irredeemably anti-Scottish[…]There are indeed more votes on the centre-right than the 16% the Tories win. But that does not mean the Tories are in a position, necessarily, to win those votes.”

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/3260661/the-not-so-strange-death-of-tory-scotland-part-1.thtml

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/3260586/the-not-so-strange-death-of-tory-scotland-part-2-do-you-believe-in-reincarnation.thtml

    He also mentions the obsessive Euroscepticism being a factor in alienating Scottish voters. It’s going to be seen as extraordinarily hypocritical for the Conservative Party to ask Irish Nationalist voters to ‘park’, for all practical purposes, the sovereignty issue in NI, while they themselves blether on about protecting British sovereignty from the EU.

    Some of Alex’s points are directly applicable to NI. Given the scale of opposition it will face, I can’t see how a party, no matter how independent, that takes the Tory whip at Westminster will be seen as anything other than an NI extension of the Conservative Party (…this is not a weak spot for the SDLP because the Labour Party does not have the same negative image among Catholics). There are quite a lot of right-wing Nationalists, but to paraphrase Alex, that does not mean the Tories are in a position, necessarily, to draw their votes.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Shane,

      I have read some of the outpourings of spilt ink from Scottish Conservatives but not that particular one. I can tell you that the timing of my launch of this campaign was influenced by the calls for an Independent Scottish Conservative Party, including the critique on the General Election campaign by Conservative Home.

      When Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979, the Conservatives won 21 seats. It is very hard to imagine that happening now. The two big events which seem to have led to the Toxicity of the Conservative Party in Scotland the opposition towards devolution and the introduction of the poll tax.

      You are absolutely right to identify Europe as a potential problem but I also believe you are being over-sceptical. Before I go on, if a Nationalist party campaigns on issues and attracts voters on issues and not because they are nationalist, I would not condemn that. It is normal politics.

      If the European issue is handled correctly, it does not have to lead to toxicity. I think there would have to be a vigorous debate from within the new party on whether it would be right to maintain an alliance with the Conservatives in the European Parliament whilst they remained outside the EPP group.

      In relation to the Euro, that issue has to be faced purely as an economic issue. With the crisis in Europe over Greece and other potentially bankrupt states, the case for staying out of the Euro has never been stronger. Indeed, many Irish south of the border are turning against it. On balance, I sense that the Nationalists are vulnerable if they continue to advocate that Britain joins the euro.

  7. shane says:

    Seymour, thanks for your response. While we’re on the Scottish issue, given your legal background, what would be the constitutional ramifications for Northern Ireland in the event of Scottish independence? Does the UK simply cease to exist?

  8. Seymour Major says:

    Shane,

    Scottish Independence wont happen through war and any attempt at unilateral declaration would be illegal. The only legal way it would happen is through an Act of Parliament. Of course, the rest of Britain would not stop Scotland becoming independent, if that is what it wanted.

    An Act of Parliament for independence would have to be drafted. Your point would then be dealt with though. The statute draftsman would be aware that the Act of Union with Ireland 1800 (as amended) post-dated the Act of Union with Scotland 1707. In the 1800 statute, there were references to the “union with Great Britain” which does indeed include Scotland. Therefore, in order to tidy it up, the new legislation would have to re-define the rump state that was left which would be England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Acts of Union would then be abolished and replaced with the new act.

    Note that Scottish Independence, if it did happen, would not directly lead to a Scottish Republic. The SNP is not actually a republican party. They would wish to retain the Monarchy. However, the new act of Parliament for independence would still need to deal with the constitutional mechanisms for retaining the Queen, or her successor, as the head of state.

    With Scotland currently devolved, there is no overwhelming pressure for independence at the moment but it is still a distinct possibility. The New Conservative style of engaging with the Ministers in the devolved Government may actually prove popular in the regions. What is more likely to happen is a gradual incremental ceding of some of the reserved matters, particularly in relation to taxation. I expect some more financial devolution to be given to Wales in the future. Scotland has limited revenue raising powers at the moment (more than Wales and NI) but more will come their way. At the moment, the regions are given a pile of money and their only decision is how to spend it. That leaves a problem with democratic accountability. The problem is exercising Conservative minds.

    One of the by-products of sectarian politics is that revenue raising power tends to result in procrastination, ducking responsibility and “pass the parcel” when it comes to taking an unpopular decisions. You can see this already with the deferment of the Water rate charges and the parochial attitude of Ministers at Stormont in relation to accepting responsibility for spending cuts.

    Northern Ireland will not be ready for more revenue raising powers until we have normal politics. Sorry to ramble on. I think I have answered your question!

  9. shane says:

    Seymour, thanks for the clarification, it is very enlightening.

    I think the trend to fiscal autonomy for Scotland is inexorable. The IPPR recently warned that deferring cuts in NI and Scotland will provoke an English backlash. This means Unionists are caught in a Catch 22 situation, which may ultimately prove fatal to the Union; spending cuts in Scotland plays into the hands of Scottish Nationalists, whereas a lack of spending cuts in Scotland plays into the hands of English Nationalists. It’s hard for a Unionist to market the Union in Scotland (by stressing its financial advantages etc) without also increasing resentment in England.

    If, then, Scotland voted for independence, and an Act of Parliament was passed accordingly, the new rump state of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would, as I understand, be defined as the successor state? This means that the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements, which clarified Northern Ireland as being a constituent of the United Kingdom would not be retrospectively invalidated. Am I correct?

    If such a scenario were to emerge, how do you envisage things playing out? Most unionists feel a greater affinity with Scotland than England, but I don’t think an SNP government in an independent Scotland would be very receptive to the idea of annexing Northern Ireland. How tenable would a Union be between just Wales, NI and England? It automatically abolishes (since Scotland is an indispensible component of Great Britain) the rump state’s pretence to being the possessor of the British identity; indeed Britishness in political terms becomes about as relevent as being ‘Eurasian’, it becomes just a geographic identity. Scottish independence is probably likely to have hugely a destabilizing effect, no? Would it, do you think, lead to a united Ireland by the back door?

    • Seymour Major says:

      Shane,

      Nobody knows how things will actually pan out in the Union vis a vis Scotland or the other parts of the Union. No, a breakaway of Scotland would not affect the legality of the Good Friday agreement, etc. It would almost certainly affect the dynamic, in the sense that the Unionist identity would be likely to be dealt a crushing blow. It could be the catalyst for a change of attitude amongst unonists and who knows, it may lead to a united Ireland. Then again, it might not. It could lead to a regression back into Protestantism and religious bigotry.

      I know people like to talk about breaking up the union and a united Ireland. There are people who talk about a united Ireland as if it is an end in itself. Not so. What if we have a referendum tomorrow which yielded a slim majority for united Ireland, leading to an all – island Irish State. Would it solve the problem of sectarianism? Not on your nellie.

      Too many people who are involved in NI politics have their political priorities all wrong. I sense a growing feeling that the Northern Irish population is fed up with this and they want a new politics. Who will deliver it to them? Not the four biggest parties, that is for sure.

  10. shane says:

    Many Conservatives at the time of the devolution referendum warned that Scottish independence referendum would ignite desire for independent states in England and Wales. These things rarely happen in a vacuum. If Scotland seceedes its going to cause a major upheaval in English and Welsh attitudes towards the ‘rump’ union and the prospect of their independence, no?. These things rarely happen in vacuums. It may cause a demand for referendum in England, which would be easily passed (NI and Wales without Scotland would be a major net drag, with little advantage).

    Fundamentally a lot of this comes down to a decline in a sense of British identity, forged in war and empire.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Shane,

      I agree with you. If Scotland did become independent, it would indeed fundementally affect the relationship in what was left of the union. I dont agree with what was said about the desire for independent states. Devolution has, to a large extent been succesful and led to a more contented union. It has even had the effect of pacifying desire for a united Ireland within the Catholic community in Northern Ireland.

      I agree with you about how the British Identity came to being. Lets be honest about our history. Before the union with Scotland, which came about as a result of the merger of the English and Scottish crowns, Ireland was annexed and colonised. Wales was conquered. The formation of the Union was followed by Empire.

      History is full of the good, the bad and the ugly but let us also appreciate that without history, we would not be what we are and who we are today. The Scots would not be who they are without the invasions from Ireland some 1500 years ago. The English would not be who they are without the Norman conquest. Invasion of our land in our history is part of all of us.

      I have often heard it asked by journalists, “what does it mean to be British?” Those same journalists then ask “what does it mean to be English?”

      That is because the identity problem is not so much with Britian. The British identity is very clear. Scots and Welsh people have no problem with the interaction between their British and their domnion identity. It is the English identity which has become weak because it has been subsumed by the British identity. One of the by-products is that an English view of Scots and Welsh is they are just one of them with a different accent. It tends to result in the English looking arrogant and disrespectful.

      You can see the weakness of the English identity in the lack of cultural expression, with the exception of when English sports teams are in action. Very few English actually know that St. Georges day is 23rd April. That reminds me of a funny incident about 17 years ago. I was working in England, at the time. It was St. George’s day and I decided I wanted to do something to celebrate it. I went to a flower shop and bought a rose which I pinned onto my suit. When I got back to the office, one of my work colleages said, “Gosh Seymour. I never thought I would see the day when you decided to join the Labour Party”

      Interestingly, likes of Boris Johnston, mayor of London and others have latched on to the English identity problem. He has instituted celebrations in London on St. Georges day and this is being replicated by other Councils across England. Watch that space. I believe that St. Georges day will eventually be a bank holiday.

  11. Seymour Major says:

    Paul,

    I have made it clear both in this post and on the static page above that the new party would have to have a different name. That is a vital part of the proposed re-branding package.

    I am not going to decide on the name of a new party by myself. I believe it will be an important first rite that the members of the new party to have their say and vote on a selection of names. That will be an important step in sharing the ownership of the new party.

    As to the initiatives coming from Scottish Conservatives, I was indeed aware of that. The Scottish Conservatives, like us, need to be independent and change their name. In Scotland, the toxicity problems are not the same as here, obviously, but they exist there and their need for re-branding is based on a similar analysis.

  12. Seymour Major says:

    Paul

    There are, of course, many loops to go through before this campaign gets to the stage where a name is chosen for a new party. That said, I would have no problem with that name or many others.

  13. paul says:

    I understand that seymour would you expect to try to stand candidates at next years assembly and local elections or is that too soon.?

    • Seymour Major says:

      Paul,

      I dont know the answer to that at the moment but I think it is unlikely at this stage.

      The Assembly elections take place next March or thereabouts. It is almost certainly too early because in order for this campaign to be effective a certain amount of time is needed for it to build up a “head of steam.”

      I have not yet reached a view on what a reasonable time limit would be for the Conservatives to make up their mind but I dont think it should go on longer than one year from now, when the Conservatives have their next but one AGM.

      I wont rule anything in or out at this stage though.

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  15. paul says:

    seymour its being reported that the ND conservtives will announce there assemby candidate next month it seems that the NI conservatives are all over the place Ian parsley wants the link up with the UUP to carry on as some other NI tories do the whole things a shambles.

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