Last week, Owen Polley wrote an article in the Belfast Telegraph entitled “The Old baggage that came with the New Force must go.” In the article, he discussed options for the Conservative Party, including my proposal for a new non-designated Centre-Right party.
As one would expect from an opponent, there was a distortion in his presentation of what the proposal is about. However, it is his attack on the proposal which I would wish to answer. He said this:
“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.”
This statement is disingenuous for a number of reasons.
The “border issue,” as Mr. Polley calls it, is the question of whether Northern Ireland should become part of a united Ireland. It is not the only constitutional issue. The proposed new party, whilst taking no position on Northern Ireland’s sovereign future, would not “duck” a discussion about it. The proposed new party would not be required to take a neutral position on any other constitutional issue. It would also not be required to take a neutral position on any other which might be indirectly connected with Northern Ireland’s sovereign future. For example, tomorrow, I will be providing comment upon some aspects of the Saville enquiry, which is due to be published by the Government on Tuesday.
The key point is that the power, to decide whether Northern Ireland remains as part of the United Kingdom or becomes part of the Republic of Ireland, does not lie with the elected politicians. It lies with the people in a future referendum. For that reason alone, it is not necessary, in Northern Ireland’s best interests, to take a position on it.
Mr. Polley’s reference to “equal citizenship” is a reference to participation in the union with the United Kingdom by voting for or against the next Government in a General Election. He is suggesting that if you can not put on a ballot paper your “X” (or your 1 or 2 or 3 when AV arrives) next to the name of a party which can govern the United Kingdom, you can not achieve equal citizenship.
Under my proposal, equal citizenship would still be achieved. It is merely the vehicle for achieving it that would be different. A Northern Ireland voter would still be able to vote for or against the party which forms the Government of the United Kingdom because there would be an alliance of the new party with the Conservatives in Parliament.
I am at a loss to understand why Mr. Polley says that a neutral centre-right party could not offer normal politics. Perhaps he is saying that politics are not normal without incessant discussion about the future of the union, yet he also says that unionists should stop defending it.
Normal politics would not be attained in Northern Ireland without both communities participating in a choice of politics which is based upon shared values, rather than identity or sovereignty. Having strong political parties which promote policies for effective government but which are also neutral on Northern Ireland’s future sovereignty is not just a means to achieving normal politics. It is the only way forward to achieve normal politics in Northern Ireland.