Conservativism in Northern Ireland

Irwin Armstrong, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Region of the Conservative Party, has made a comment contribution to ‘About Northern Ireland Centre-Right (a static page on this blog).  I have republished his comment below with my reply.

By Irwin Armstong

It is inconceivable that we Conservatives might somehow not be Conservatives. 

We are Conservatives and will remain so, however the Party needs to be percieved as local as well as national. To achieve this will mean that we need to communicate with voters that in Northern Ireland, in common with the other parties. We are made up of local people and are free to have a local manifesto for devolved issues that reflects the needs of Northern Ireland.

Our unique selling points are that we are local,  pro union and completely non sectarian and at the same time have a solid link to national politics, which at the moment means directly with Hillsborough Castle and Downing Street.  In other words we would need to convince potential voters that we are ‘One Northern Ireland’ Conservatives with direct influence in the corridors of power that can benefit everyone in Northern Ireland.

Almost 500,000 registered voters did not vote in the last election, and are therefore detached from the current political offerings. In any election that we might contest many of those would be our target market as would other centrist voters who currently vote for other parties. Our task would then be to persuade them that there is an alternative to the current Orange/Green or we are not Orange/Green politics that is what passes for politics in Northern Ireland.

Following a successful conference, http://www.niconservatives.com/* will keep everyone informed of the directions that the party will take over the coming months.

Reply by Seymour Major

What is in a name?  When I think of the name “Conservative,” as an adjective, it does not square up with David Cameron’s assertion that the party is radical.  It certainly does not sit with the slogan “vote for change.”  Even if you do not agree that the conservative brand is toxic in Northern Ireland, there is no better time like the present for a name change 

Of course, I will always be a conservative in terms my centre-right ideals.  I will still be able to call myself a conservative, just as the Republican Party in the US calls itself a conservative party.  There is also another part of the Conservative tradition that I draw from.  It is the willingness to face up to the reasons for electoral failure and the recognition that changes have to be made in order to win.   

I agree that a party should be local, as well as national, and have a solid link to Downing Street and Hillsborough.  In order to achieve that, it is not necessary for that party to represent itself in all the seats in the United Kingdom so long as it is allied to one that has the potential to form the Government.  The CSU of Bavaria, Germany, already does that very successfully.

It is all very well for the Conservative Party to call itself pro-union and completely non-sectarian.  Why is that a unique selling point?  If Basil McCrea had succeeded as UUP leader, there would have been two parties that fitted that description. 

How is the Conservative Party supposed to sell Conservativism to potential conservatives within the Nationalist Community?  The evidence points, overwhelmingly, to the Conservatives failing in this regard.  If it fails, its non-sectarian credentials will be an irrelevance because it will have failed to deliver normal politics.  Yes, I hear conservatives cry “the constitutional arrangements are settled” and “people only need to vote on bread and butter issues.”   If that is the case, it also follows that a conservative party in Northern Ireland has no need to be unionist. 

It is true that 500,000 registered voters did not vote in the last election.   With the exception of Fermanagh & South Tyrone, the Conservatives were represented.  They did not interest these people.  Many of these people are cynical about politics because it is sectarian.  So what are the Conservatives going to be able to do about sectarianism? 

By remaining unionist, the Conservatives contribute to re-enforcing the sectarian loop.  In that respect, they don’t offer anything new to these people.

I note the phrase coined, “One Northern Ireland Conservatives.”  That is an interesting adaption of a particular strain of conservativism.   Sadly, it is utopian in the context of Northern Ireland.  “One Nation Conservatives” has not been said because Northern Ireland comprises two nations.   With the greatest respect, my proposal is about reaching out to all the people.  It is much nearer in keeping with the spirit of Benjamin Disraeli. 

I have made my arguments.  I think that by now, they should have been well understood.

The Conservative leadership, looking at Northern Ireland from England, will be looking at the UUP and thinking “How many disaffected members of that party can we pick up?”  That is the reason why I don’t think my argument will have sway, in the short term.

The Conservative leadership is being short-term and selfish because it can see “fools gold” in the form of a likelihood that a few thousand UUP members will defect to them.   Do the Conservatives not realise that if the UUP breaks up, a considerable number of them will transfer their allegiance to the DUP and the Alliance Party? 

A few thousand ex-UUP supporters will hardly guarantee parliamentary seats.   Sooner or later, the Conservatives will start to realise that they need Catholic votes in order to compete with the DUP.  They will wonder why they are not getting them!

Most unfortunately, an opportunity will have been missed to create something electrifying and exciting.  Sooner or later, the Fianna Fail party, having already registered in Northern Ireland, will scoop up the right-of-centre nationalists.  Non-sectarian politics could then become as far away as ever.

* this website is now linked on the sidebar of this blog

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15 Responses to Conservativism in Northern Ireland

  1. bob wilson says:

    You are right many UUP members would go to the DUP and some to Alliance and a few hundred (not thousands – there are only 2000 members total – a big lot of them Enniskillen drinkers!)

  2. bob wilson says:

    As you know I think it is simply unrealistic to have no view on the Union.
    Conservatives are pro Union – but we dont need to wrap ourselves in the Union flag and disrespect other traditions to prove it.
    We need a Party that recognises this and focus on the whole of the community of NI – One Northern Ireland does not deny any tradition

    • Seymour Major says:

      Bob,

      Nobody is suggesting that the Conservative party is not, or ever will be, a disrespectful party or that it will “over egg” the position of the Union.

      The central point here is ‘how will the Conservative party attract substantial numbers of Catholic votes?’

      If you are not interested in that end of the electoral market, please admit it. The one thing that is not shining through from Conservatives, at present, is candour.

  3. There is a difference between having a personal opinion on a matter such as the Union and having a party policy on it. For example, I think it is safe to assume that most people have an opinion on abortion, but as far as I can tell the Conservative Party does not have an abortion policy, rather leaving it as a matter of personal conscience. Surely this is the appropriate way to prevent deeply-held opinions on emotive matters from overwhelming the political process?

  4. Irwin Armstrong says:

    Seymour

    You seem to think that people always take political decisions based on their religion, I simply do not agree with that perception. The 500,000 people who decided not to vote in the last election I suspect did not do so based on their religion, it was more likely that the did not see a reason to vote for any party. I also do not accept that we have two nations within Northern Ireland, we have one nation that contains people from many differing cultural backgrounds who have much more in common that they have in differences.

    The failure of the UCU-NF project was due to many reasons and the decision not to run in FST and the selection of candidates on the eve of the election were two that were high on the list. How we could say to voters that we supported non sectarian polictics and not run a candidate in FST was irreconcilable in my opinion and cost many votes, that will not be repeated. In the end we had two Conservatives, out of seventeen, running in seats that were always completely unwinnable, hardly a test of the viability of our party.

    When we agree to fight elections I want us to offer a political manifesto that is based on real politics not religion and that regardless of their background people can evaluate what we propose and see how it would effect them and their family.

    I make no secret of the fact that I believe that the best future for Northern Ireland is within the UK, I do not see us as Unionists but as pro UK which has an entirely different connotation here. However that is not the reason why I would ask people to vote for 1NIC, I would ask them to vote for specific policies and for candidates that can achieve better outcomes than the current parties. It is probable that starting with the economy in its current state will mean many of our initial policies will not be centre right as we have to recognise that the level of state spending at over 75% will not be rectified quickly.

    The UUP are now led by a traditional Unionist who is more interested in traditonal unionist values which do not attempt to appeal to the centre ground. FF can not offer policies for a Northern Ireland within the UK so would appeal to an entirely different demographic from 1NIC so I do not see either party being relevant to where we are.

    To be quite clear the sector we would target if the future would be the centre 40-50% of the electorate many of whom do not vote today, we could certainly pick up voters from other parties in that sector as well as current non voters. The level of success in any future election would be down to our ability to persuade voters that we are a serious local party, with serious local policies, and serious local candidates that can change their lives for the better, not whether we are called Conservatives or support the Union.

    I also see no place for a party that is agnostic on the UK, Alliance already sit in that place and despite their success in East Belfast their vote has declined over the years.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Irwin,

      You seem to think that people always take political decisions based on their religion

      Essentially, Northern Ireland votes divide along Nationality lines. I recommend that you read page 21 of the Newsletter dated 7th October which discusses a recent survey on voting patterns by Liverpool University. I quote from Professor Jon Tongue

      “People in Northern Ireland will continue in the near future at least to vote in a green orange pattern”

      “The 500,000 people who decided not to vote in the last election I suspect did not do so based on their religion, it was more likely that the did not see a reason to vote for any party”

      I tend to agree with this statement in relation to the majority of non-voters but you are misrepresenting what can realistically be achieved from this group. There is, here, a national problem which is not unique to Northern Ireland. If the Main Conservative Party has not found a way to prevent national voter apathy, how can the regional NI party? Let’s put this problem more accurately. In Northern Ireland, the turnout was 56.9%. In the UK as a whole, the turnout was 65.1% (a differential of 8.2%). Looking at previous elections, the Northern Ireland polling average has been consistently lower than the UK National Average. The average UK turnout for all elections between 1945 and 2010 was 73.9%. The average for Northern Ireland was 69.4% (an average differential of 4.5%). Northern Ireland was therefore only 3.7% lower in 2010 than its normal differential. That is 43,700 voters. I suspect that many of these people are put off by the fact the current political system in Northern Ireland is sectarian.

      I also do not accept that we have two nations within Northern Ireland

      I am very surprised that you have said this. Let me quote to you the following passage from the Belfast Agreement.

      “The participants…..will
      recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to
      identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they
      may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both
      British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would
      not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

      Perhaps you could explain to me why the passports of more than 400,000 Northern Irish people have been issued in Dublin?

      “The failure of the UCU-NF project was due to many reasons”

      We don’t know how successful the project would have been if those reasons did not exist. However, some of those “reasons” could not have been prevented. I have said since the General Election that the UUP was never a fit partner for the Conservatives, at the outset. The idea that they could have done what they should have done without being completely taken over is fantasy. Somebody or some people in the Conservative Party are responsible for a complete failure to do a proper due diligence on the UUP. This failure has hurt a lot of us (you included) and it is about time that somebody senior in the party owned up and apologised.

      “I do not see us as Unionists but as pro UK which has an entirely different connotation here.”

      I sort of understand what you mean but most people reading what you have written will think you are contradicting yourself. In any event, my proposal is for a pro Northern Ireland-centred political party – not “pro UK” one. Once you introduce “Pro UK” into your political language, you will be a turn-off to a potential centre-right nationalist.

      “I would ask them to vote for specific policies and for candidates that can achieve better outcomes than the current parties”

      That wont get you anywhere with conservative nationalists if the party retains a unionist identity, I am afraid.

      “I also see no place for a party that is agnostic on the UK, Alliance already sit in that place and despite their success in East Belfast their vote has declined over the years.”

      The Alliance Party have only been agnostic on the union since the mid 1990s.

      The current trend of their vote shows that it is rising.
      2005 DCE – 5.0%, 2007 AE – 5.2%, 2009 EE – 5.5%, 2010 GE 6.3%

      I prefer to remain circumspect about the future of the AP. You might find that their share of the vote significantly increases in the forthcoming Assembly election.

      Conclusion

      I believe that at some point in the future, the Conservative leadership will come around to accepting my viewpoint. Make no mistake, the age of reason and enlightenment, as it applies to Northern Ireland, will eventually permeate the cognitive resources of the Party.

      At some time in the future, most unionists will be very comfortable with the idea of an agnostic party because they will prefer to break down sectarian politics. My fear is that in failing to be patient and building for the longer term, the Conservatives will have missed an important opportunity.

    • “I also do not accept that we have two nations within Northern Ireland, we have one nation that contains people from many differing cultural backgrounds who have much more in common that they have in differences.”

      Nationhood is a difficult concept to define objectively. However, the first step in doing so must be to take account of individual identity and self-description. However unfortunate one may find it, it is an inescapable fact that the people of Northern Ireland do not self-identify with a single nation. As countless surveys have shown, the people identify variously as “British”, “Irish”, “Northern Irish/Ulster” or some combination of the above. If we are to somehow reconcile these disparate identities (which I believe is a noble aim) we must first have a clear appreciation of where we are starting from.

      Where I do agree with you is in your statement that we have more common ground than differences. This is why I am a firm believer that cross-community politics is achievable in the medium to long term. But to flatly deny that national identity is one of the biggest differences, as you appear to have done above, is to indulge in fantasy.

      I notice that you have not named this single nation that the people of NI supposedly belong to. Would you care to?

      FF can not offer policies for a Northern Ireland within the UK so would appeal to an entirely different demographic from 1NIC

      Fianna Fáil’s ventures north of the border appear to be aimed at eating into Sinn Féin support. I agree with you that they do not offer anything substantially new to the nationalist-community voter. My question to you is what does the NI Conservative Party offer to the nationalist-community voter? The great danger of non-sectarian politics in NI is excessive concentration on non-voters, most of which will probably never vote for any political party, no matter how progressive. The real challenge is to persuade existing voters to switch from the established parties, and to do so a small party must cast its net as wide as possible. There are too many niches in NI politics already.

  5. Irwin Armstrong says:

    I will comment on three points.

    Unionist v. ProUK – I think the difference is easy to identify, over the years Unionist has much baggage in terms of its usuage, it is now thought by many to signify a variety of other things Orange, Extreme, Protestant etc. Pro UK is exactly what it says on the tin, without any baggage from the past.

    In terms of Nationhood we claim to be many things here Irish, British, Ulster, European etc. The one common feature here the vast majority of people have is that they were born in the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. It is my belief from recent surveys (e.g. NILT) that more and more people are willing to be ‘from’ Northern Ireland and to even be ‘Northern Irish’ and that the people in Northern Ireland are more of a Nation that say someone from South Cork and someone from North Antrim. The fact, for example, that 2 farmers who live side by side and go in different directions on a Sunday does not mean they do not have a very close common bond in the rest of their lives.

    Although a Conservative I am also a realist and I have to accept that doctrinaire centre right policies on many issues in Northern Ireland would not be of benefit to the people here in the short to medium term. I believe in small Government but starting from a country where over 77% of the money flows from Government in one way or another small Government is just not an option, the best we can do is to plan a reduction in the 77% over a long period that would result in the least possible damage to our struggling private economy. We need, in the short term, to move away from the often perjorative labels such as left, right or centre to solve the problems of Northern Ireland, maybe at some point in the future when our economy has some semblance of normality we can also revert to the norms. I think it is reasonable to agree that many Conservative polices being looked at in the UK are not policies that the party would have considered ten years ago and we need to exhibit the same flexibility here.

    • To answer your three points:

      Pro UK is exactly what it says on the tin, without any baggage from the past.

      If only it were that easy to get rid of historical baggage. For MLAs or local councillors to be “Pro-UK” is as pointless as it is for them to be pro-gravity. The conditions under which a change in NI’s constitutional status can be effected are perfectly clear. MLAs, councillors etc. have no role in that process, and intentionally so. Elected representatives should campaign on the basis of what they intend to achieve if elected. Anything else is at best an irrelevant distraction, and at worst a crippling encumbrance. The only practical reason for any political party in NI to have a policy on the constitution is as an indicator for which side of the community they will be prejudiced towards when in office. It is precisely this aspect of politics that Seymour’s campaign is intended to combat.

      The one common feature here the vast majority of people have is that they were born in the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. It is my belief from recent surveys (e.g. NILT) that more and more people are willing to be ‘from’ Northern Ireland and to even be ‘Northern Irish’ and that the people in Northern Ireland are more of a Nation that say someone from South Cork and someone from North Antrim.

      You make a huge logical leap here. Just because we were all born in NI does not make us a nation. Nationhood is an emotional state, born of a sense of kinship. You may find it unappealing, even illogical, that a person from North Antrim might feel greater kinship with someone from Cork than he does with some of his neighbours, but this is in many cases an accurate observation. You selectively quote from the NILT survey, forgetting that it also shows that significant numbers of people still identify solely or primarily as British or Irish. Even if at some point in the future a Northern Ireland identity came to be generally accepted, this still would not be a sufficient condition for nationhood. For many, “Northern Irish” will be a regional identity that co-exists with Britishness and/or Irishness. To declare that this fledgeling “Northern Irishness” represents a new nation that all should subscribe to, is tantamount to declaring that Northern Nationalists are not really Irish.

      What we should instead be doing is reassuring the people that no-one’s identity is threatened, and that Northern Ireland is greater than the sum of its various identities, not less. The idea that the promotion of Irish culture might somehow dilute the Britishness of the Unionist community is a dangerous one, as is the notion of a separate Northern Irish nation being used to drive a wedge between Irishmen on either side of the border. It is this fear of losing one’s identity that has led to the sterile “shared-out future” of the SF/DUP regime. Telling nationalists that they should give up their Irishness for a new Northern Irishness, as you imply by declaring Northern Irishness a nationality, is asking them to give up their cherished identity. You will not get much support from the nationalist community if you continue in this vein.

    • Sorry, I forgot to address your third point, as I promised.

      We need, in the short term, to move away from the often perjorative labels such as left, right or centre to solve the problems of Northern Ireland, maybe at some point in the future when our economy has some semblance of normality we can also revert to the norms.

      While I have some sympathy with you on this point, the danger is that by neutering all possible controversy from politics you end up with a bland, uninteresting product that won’t sell. This is the essence of my criticism of the Alliance Party – by defining itself as a centre party on all conceivable metrics, it loses any purpose except as a protest vote. My view on the way forward for NI politics is clear: we need to change the nature of debate. The Alliance Party is incapable of doing that on its own, because the other parties will always be able to set the agenda. With the creation of a left/right split in the constitutional centre an opportunity would open up for constitutional centrists to collaborate in setting a new agenda, by refusing to engage the old parties on their own ground.

      Imagine a weekday evening a few years hence, with two political talk shows on rival channels. The first features an Alliance representative and a Conservative/People’s Party representative disagreeing strongly over tax breaks, university admissions and infrastructure provision. The second features the DUP and Sinn Féin arguing about parades, the Maze memorial and bilingual signs. Which channel would you watch?

  6. Irwin Armstrong says:

    Who mentioned removing controversy, not having left centre or right policies does not mean policies cannot be radical. I just want to have a realsitic set of policies that reflect where we are in Northern Ireland. Unbending Centre Right policies at the moment would be disastrous in a society that has 77% of funding from the state, they may be an aspiration I hold dear but ones that are some way off. Whatever happens it will be within the UK as that is the only realistic source of funding today, who knows about the future.

    You seem to think that just because that is the way it has always been it cannot change, I just do not accept that the status quo will never change, it will need leadership and vision to change it, but the opportunity is there.

    • Of course policy must be tailored to local circumstances. And of course there is no reason why politics should necessarily be oriented on a traditional Left-Right axis – I would be the first to welcome a break from the one-dimensional political axis. But we cannot change everything at once, and in Northern Ireland the thing that most needs changing is the polarisation of politics along ethno-religious lines. It does not matter exactly what shape the new politics takes, so long as it is a) cross-community based, b) concentrates on practical matters rather than symbolism and c) offers a real choice to the voter. Having a “pro-UK” policy fails test A (in the short term at least) and also test B (as only a referendum can alter sovereignty). Giving up descriptive labels such as “left” and “right” without replacing them with something meaningful (“realistic” doesn’t count) fails test C.

      You talk about leadership and vision, but I don’t see it. Your desire for a shared sense of “Northern Irishness” is well-meant but will take a generation to accomplish and is dependent on cross-community barriers being torn down first. There are more urgent priorities.

  7. Seymour Major says:

    Irwin,

    I have not responded to your last two comments. In short, I agree with just about everything that Andrew has said. I would only add the following in relation to what is being said about left – right and the state sector.

    In today’s political climate, it is the size of the state (in normal ecomonic circumstances) that represents most of what divides left and right.

    In other parts of the United Kingdom, you will find that there is a correlation between the size of the state and the level of support that the Labour Party gets. There is little doubt that there are groups of voters working in the public sector who vote Labour because they think that under their Government, their job security is greater. I suspect that if Labour did operate here, they would have some success.

    Unbending Centre Right policies at the moment would be disastrous in a society that has 77% of funding from the state

    There is no point in Conservatives talking soft on the size of the state. It wont get us anywhere. There is too much cynicism about. Talking up what funding is still there wont get us popularity.

    It is important that we set about educating voters about how an economy works. Mrs. Thatcher, when she was interviewed on the TV, never missed an opportunity to try and explain things in layman’s language. She pounded away at these themes. I believe that contributed to her success.

    We must be honest in terms of what we want. We should not conceal the fact that we want a smaller state and for a ‘Big Society’ to take over some of the responsibilities currently being provided by the state. We must tell people that these measures will lead to more jobs, more prosperity and more opportunities to spend money on better hospitals, schools and state infrastructure. We also have to be clear that the wealth has to be generated first, not borrowed. We have to present ourselves as the party that can look after the Nation’s finances. “Sound money” was a phrase that Mrs. T never stopped using.

    With Labour having made such a mess of handling the National finances, there will never be a better time to explain things to the voters. So let us not be pussycats when it comes to talking macro-economic policy. Lets be robust and tough-talking about what is going to happen, explain the logic of it and the reward to be reaped at the end of it. We have nothing to gain by telling the voters that the blow is going to be softend by a slow rate of change.

    On the other hand, soft talk must not be confused with emphasising the fact that we care about all people. The economic pain will be spread fairly and the weakest and the helpless will always be looked after. When the axe swings, this will be shown to be the case.

  8. Connie says:

    As an expat of Ulster descent, it seems to me regrettable that any serious thought is being given to attracting the votes of those whose loyalty is to an alien and largely hostile republic.
    If conservatism is not about loyalty, flag, crown, and patriotism, it is just an empty vessel. Economic policies are interesting but never inspiring.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Connie,

      The most telling part of your comment is the last one “Economic policies are interesting but never inspiring.”

      Never mind the aims of NI Centre Right. I have news for you. The Conservative party is all about economic policy. If union flag packaging is all that you are interested in, then you are not the sort of person that this blog is interested in connecting with.

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