One of the criticisms made of the Conservative Party has been that having a party political interest in Northern Ireland prevents them from dealing with Northern Ireland in a “neutral” manner.
Shortly after the announcement of the pact with the UUP, David Cameron demonstrated that he was alert to this potential conflict of interest. At the UUP party conference on 6th December 2008, he said
“I will always uphold the democratic wishes of people here in respect of their constitutional future…..”
On the other hand, he was emphatic in his support for the Union. He said,
“…..but I will never be neutral when it comes to expressing my support for the Union”
Owen Paterson, now our secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has given statements to the media which appear to blur that distinction. Details of one of his interviews were published in the Newsletter on 9th April. It said:
“Mr Paterson was at pains to stress that he will be a “partial” unionist if the Tories win and he is given the role, arguing for the Union and promoting Northern Ireland based on its place within the United Kingdom.”
I never had any doubt that the Conservatives, at Government level, would try to act in a neutral way. Political watchers like me understood, perfectly well, that an overlap could be avoided between neutrality on the peace process and not being neutral on the union. However, there was always going to be criticism and opponents were always going to find it much too easy to ‘muddy the water.’
Some of the criticism has been ill-informed and irresponsible, such as the headline in an editorial in the Times last February. Unfortunately, however unjustified the criticism is, none of it helps Conservative political prospects.
The Conservative involvement in Northern Ireland was attacked by Labour in the lead up to the general election campaign and during it. On the Politics Show, Lord Mandelson accused the Conservatives of playing politics with Northern Ireland. A much nastier attack came from Shaun Woodward, Labour’s former Northern Ireland minister, just before the election. In an interview with the Guardian, Woodward claimed that the Conservative intervention interfered with the Peace Process.
The Conservative political involvement in Northern Ireland has also led to confusion. When the Conservatives set out their stall for Northern Ireland, the lines of demarcation were perfectly clear. The Tory-UUP pact was about the European and General Elections. Policy decisions relating to the Assembly were matters for local parties. That did not prevent George Bush from urging David Cameron to put pressure on the Ulster Unionists over their stance on the devolution of Police and Justice.
Wrong assumptions about what the Conservatives would and would not do have not just been made by politicians abroad. There was confusion within the Ulster Unionist Party itself. Alex Kane, their former director of communications believed that the Conservatives, once in Government, would replace mandatory coalition with voluntary coalition.
But it is not just confusion, misunderstanding and criticism that show the Conservatives in a poor light for their involvement in Northern Ireland politics.
The Good Friday Agreement states, on the subject of having a referendum, to determine its constitutional future:
“The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that …they will… recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, “
It is arguable that “external impediment” refers only to interference with a referendum and not general politics. Unfortunately, that argument is unsatisfactory both legally and politically. There is no definition of “external impediment” in the Good Friday Agreement and entering into election politics is certainly one way to influence the outcome of a possible future referendum.
So long as the Conservatives have a direct interest in politics in Northern Ireland, with control of that interest operating in Britain, the Conservatives will face accusations, not without substantial force, that they are acting unconstitutionally.
Needless to say, the Conservatives could free themselves from all of these difficulties by adopting the Northern Ireland Centre-right proposal.