Last minute change in plan by CCHQ devastating to local Conservatives

In the last couple of days, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland regional Conservatives, Irwin Armstrong, has resigned from his office following a decision by CCHQ to renew links with the UUP. The decision has meant that Conservatives will not be allowed to field candidates in the forthcoming Assembly elections. However, Conservatives will be allowed to field candidates in the council elections.

Tom Elliot calls for death of NI Conservatives

Until a few days ago, it seemed that the Northern Ireland Conservatives were about to be given the “green light” to pursue a long term campaign to build the party in Northern Ireland. In a remarkable last minute “u” turn, CCHQ has acted upon an utterly desperate plea from the UUP.

CCHQ had already calculated that a Conservative election campaign would severely damage the UUP’s prospects without much chance of short term electoral success for the local Conservatives. Factored into that calculation was the near certainty that a substantial number of defections by UUP members from its liberal wing would have occurred once the Conservatives had decided to contest assembly elections. So what exactly has brought about this change of mind?

The interests of CCHQ and the Northern Ireland Conservatives were never exactly the same. At the heart of CCHQ thinking is the knowledge that David Cameron only has a limited amount of time within which to benefit from any possible political changes in Northern Ireland. If the UUP are capable of winning seats at the 2015 Parliamentary elections, only then have they something to offer the main Conservative Party.

The abandoned plan, which Irwin Armstrong had been working towards, was about to have been endorsed by CCHQ on the assumption that the UUP had no chance of securing an elected MP at Westminster. The UUP is now suggesting that it has “turned the corner” and is rebuilding its membership and popularity. Less than a week ago, the UUP held its annual party Conference. The Conference was upbeat, leaving the clear impression of a perception of a change in fortune.

Unfortunately, there is not yet any available independent evidence to back this up. This “whimsical” decision by CCHQ comes at a very high price. It has resulted in hurt and betrayal felt by many Northern Ireland Conservatives. Furthermore, even if CCHQ eventually throws its weight behind the regional party, the task of building it will have been made much harder by this decision.

The UUP are not satisfied with CCHQ’s decision either. They still believe that the Conservatives will damage them by allowing them to contest Council elections. Tom Elliott has now called for the full disbanding of the Northern Ireland regional Conservative Party.

Mark Devonport warned about the likelihood of a fudge. He was absolutely right. CCHQ are stuck on the horns of their own dilemma. They have managed to severely damage their relationship with the Northern Ireland Conservatives whilst hardly giving the UUP what it wants. Only Peter Robinson and his colleagues can benefit from this whole sorry saga.

This entry was posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Stormont, Tom Elliott, UK Politics, UUP and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Last minute change in plan by CCHQ devastating to local Conservatives

  1. peteram79 says:

    The depressing thing is you’re absolutely right, Cameron has thrown it all away for the promise of a few seats the UUP might get and he might need.

    For what it’s worth, I argue elsewhere that this is between one and seven seats, one because I can’t see at this stage how Mike Nesbitt loses to Jim “Ulster Scots” Shannon, seven if everything falls the UUP’s way, they choose the right candidates early enough and the Tories provide marketing nous and cash. For a possible seven seats, one can almost see why Dave did it, even if one can never forgive him.

  2. Seymour Major says:


    I would be interested in reading what you have written elsewhere , if you would be so kind as to provide a link.

  3. peteram79 says:


    I apologise over the length of this thing, it was probably two topics, how the UUP might be able to repay Cameron’s gamble and why the gamble itself was so damaging. But I was so angry I rolled them both together.

    Link here

  4. Biggest Baddest Bobby says:

    Sorry Peter, what parallel universe is this you are talking about?

    Nesbitt won’t even get selected for a start! And as for the UUP winning North Antrim, their Assembly seat is in danger never mind a pop at Westminster with someone who now lives in London.

    The basic problem with the NI Tories and their friends is that they have no grasp whatsoever of NI politics, never having won an election there of any kind this century, and that article is just a classic example. The reason they didn’t get on with Parsley was that, uniquely among them, he actually knew what he was talking about.

  5. peteram79 says:

    Thanks for you feedback BBB

    Can I just clarify a couple of points?

    Given that Mike Nesbitt has staunchly backed Tom Elliott, almost won last time out in difficult circumstances and is by far the highst profile UUP-er in Strangford, why on earth do you think he won’t get selected? Care to shed any more light on this frankly bizarre statement?

    In North Antrim, why do you see the UUP being squeezed out by any TUV quota, rather than the SDLP, who look more vulnerable? As I said, North Antrim is a huge long shot, and perhaps Crossey is a better example of someone the Tories would like to see the UUP put up than someone they would. Interesting, though, that you choose to try to pick holes in the least likely target, rather than some of the others…

    Regarding Parsley, are you serious? You might be the only person I’ve come across who doesn’t conclude that, while Ian’s a nice enough guy in person, he retains an incredible gift for making voters and party colleagues dislike him intensely. Hardly the makings of someone who knows what he’s talking about.

    My feeling is that, with this Parsley comment and the tired you-Tory-types-don’t-know-Northern-Ireland schtick, you’re a DUP-er on the wind-up? Would that be fair enough?

  6. Richard says:

    Excellent piece Seymour but it’s worth informing your readers that Irwin was actually informed as recently as Monday night that we had been given the go ahead to proceed by Paterson and he discussed the mechanics of this.
    As Area Treasurer I have written a piece on Conservative home and I would urge you and your readers to do the same on their blog. We need to galvanise a campaign against this innocuous deal.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Thank you Richard,

      I refer to the link on this post to Mark Devenport’s piece in which he says

      “The UUP Deputy Leader John McAllister told us on “The Conference” that the Secretary of State Owen Paterson had assured him that the Conservatives would not run candidates against the UUP in next May’s Assembly elections.”

      Note that Devonport’s piece was written 2 days before Irwin was informed on Monday that we would still be contesting assembly elections

      This would suggest 4 possibilities

      (1) John McAllister is a liar
      (2) Mark Devenport did not hear properly what was said
      (3) The Conservatives made 2 changes of decision in the last week
      (4) Owen Paterson is a ****

  7. Richard says:

    More good points Seymour.
    The McAlister comments are significant in terms of credibility or the lack of it.
    We may be reeling but it ain’t over till the fat lady sings!
    One or two interesting points to ponder. Won’t this require the support of the board of the party?
    Secondly, dosn’t the constitution of the party say elections must be contested?

  8. If I may offer my tupennies’.

    The NI Conservatives as a grouping will get nowhere while their entire focus is *internal* and on *England*. The election is actual *external* and it’s in *Northern Ireland*.

    So, firstly, the Conservatives are still allowed to stand in local elections. The logic of that is that they can use that to set up a local electoral base and build from there. After all, if they can’t get anyone elected at local council level, they would only be bit players at Assembly level! So, are the candidates selected? Have they joined their local community association, got involved on local road safety issues, made statements to the local paper, pressed the flesh at Christmas civic functions, met with local businesspeople and so on? The NI Conservatives will be nothing without a mandate, this is the last chance for four years, and this is how you get one – so, get out there and get on with it!

    Secondly, forget about the technicalities. The Party Leader doesn’t want you to run. Even if you could theoretically overturn that decision, it’d then be too late for you to achieve anything electorally and it’d also win you no friends in the Party Leadership anyway. So think outside that box. Set up the “ONE-NI Society” as an anti-sectarian centre-right think tank and start throwing out ideas on NI devolved issues. If these happen to align generally with the Alliance Party rather than the UUP, so be it. Frankly, local Tories standing in any guise and getting thrashed only demonstrates the perceived wisdom of this decision; on the other hand, the UUP getting thrashed with many of the gains going to an Alliance Party with which local Tories agreed more anyway would demonstrate the stupidity of this decision. Which way round do you want it, going forward?

    I’m afraid that Irwin’s statement, which was extremely well constructed given the context, actually had it right – this is effectively the end of the NI Conservatives (for I don’t see an overwhelming desire among any of them to take on the first task in the context of effectively having to back the UUP, and to some degree I sympathise with that). But it isn’t the end of the values for which they stand.

    Ultimately the choice is to try to build a new centre-right anti-sectarian party (as Seymour advocates), or try to build the Alliance Party to such a level that it can afford to split along roughly left/right lines (which is, I guess, what I advocate). Either way it’s a long haul, but it’ll be no longer than engaging in fruitless battles in England about elections which are fought in Northern Ireland.

    Frankly the lesson here is that you are only of any use to the Conservative Party nationally if you can get yourselves elected in reasonable numbers. So choose your route, focus on the people of Northern Ireland (who are ultimately the only people who matter in all of this), and get to it!

  9. Seymour Major says:


    Thank you for that excellent comment. I must confess, I had not thought of building up the Alliance Party so that it would split into left/right factions but that is, theoretically, a model for a route towards normal politics.

    My insticts tell me that you would be more likely to end up with a populist party, like Fianna Fail in ROI, has been for many years. I would never want to see a populist party become so dominant. In my view, populism without ideals leads to bad politics.

    For that reason, I hope that a new non-communal centre right party will emerge and give the Alliance Party the proper left-right competition that it also needs.

  10. Ian,

    try to build the Alliance Party to such a level that it can afford to split along roughly left/right lines (which is, I guess, what I advocate)

    Yes, but it’s chicken and egg. Which should come first? Alliance has been trying to build itself up for decades now, but its support peaked some time ago. The recent resurgence in East Belfast is attributable entirely to a single event and not a long-term shift. With the former extreme parties now settling towards the centre and picking up votes on the way, the old Alliance tactic of be nice to everyone isn’t enough any more. To put it bluntly, if you’re not making enemies in politics you’re not doing it right. Alliance isn’t capable of making enemies because they draw support from left and right, unionist and nationalist. If the economic centre-right left them and went to a conservative grouping they’d probably be doing Alliance a favour because it would give them greater ideological coherence.

    • Seymour Major says:

      I totally agree with this comment.

      This criticism is very similar to one made by Michael Ashcroft of the Lib Dems last week. It is very easy to make friends when you are in opposition . When you are in power, you discover that you can not be all things to all men.

      Of course, APNI is not exactly in the same position as the Lib Dems and other parties in NI are also guilty of trying to please everybody at the same time. Regional parties are, to a certain extent, shielded from the consequence of being in Government by the fact that the devolved regions have little or no revenue – raising responsibility.

      Northern Ireland parties are further shielded by the fact that everybody is in Government and in opposition at the same time. That is yet another reason why breaking community politics and ultimately the power sharing system is a necessary and urgent objective.

      • Just as a final point here, all five Executive parties are fundamentally populist – good things are good, bad things are bad, we should have billions for public services but no taxes.

        On my own blog, however, I have advocated that the Alliance Party is the least populist of a bad bunch – for example, by openly advocating water charges, public sector pay restraint and so on (not necessarily that these are good things, but they do indicate a preference for rationality over populism). The Alliance Party still has potty policies like free prescriptions of course, but it is clearly ahead of the other four in the snail’s race away from Populismville.

    • I too agree entirely with this. (On your enemies point, mind, I personally have obviously done quite a lot right…!!)

      You made the compelling case that the Centre Ground (in the truest sense) will get nowhere without competition. However, we are left to judge just two remaining options, neither of which is perfect: a) set up a centre-right party from scratch (designed, presumably, to push the Alliance Party to the left); or b) support the Alliance Party until it reaches the stage (probably being the third largest party overall) that it itself can afford to split right/left. I emphasise neither of these is a perfect route, but I await anyone coming up with a better one.

      Personally, before I even get to b), I rule out a). No one has pressed the flesh as I advocated; there is no one with any real profile interested in it; in any case, a party defining itself on the left/right spectrum alone is not likely to get much further than the Workers’ Party and certainly no further than the Green Party given the realities of the NI electorate.

      Frankly, that leaves b).

      Hence, I have suggested to the local Conservatives the route outlined above: support the Alliance Party at the Assembly Elections having set up a centre-right, anti-sectarian think tank that agrees with it on most (but not all) issues. Further down the line, this think tank would either evolve into a new centre right party – option a) – or become an integral pressure group within the Alliance Party itself – option b). This achieves a number of goals: 1. it makes them relevant at least in some way and plays to their skills (thinking about policies rather than popular representation); 2. it would enable them to expand their skills; 3. they would be supporting a party on the up demonstrating why they could not support one on the down; and 4. it leaves options reasonably open for the future.

      I am totally open to someone coming up with something better. People randomly talking about a new Unionist Party or attempting to change CCHQ’s mind is NOT something better!

      • Seymour Major says:


        In the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fail, a populist party, was the most successful political party in the Republic of Ireland for generations. Despite being overwhelmingly the largest political party, they did not split up into left/right. Now you could argue that the Progressive Democrats was a schism of the right. That schism did not signficantly alter the face of ROI politics. You could argue that Fianna Fail did not split up because voters still had the option to vote for a right-of-centre party (Fine Gael) or a left-of-centre party (Labour). However, in reality, there was very little ideologically driven politics even from these parties.

        When politicians are populist in their minds, they are less likely to be principled and therefore more likely to be corrupt. Corruption has been a fact of life in Irish politics to a much greater extent than it has been in Britain.

        The Alliance Party is an anti-sectarian party. Margaret Ritchie would argue violently against this but communalism and sectarianism are inextricably linked. There will come a time, perhaps very soon, when the anti-sectarian voice grows in strength. It is therefore inevitable that the Alliance party will also grow in strength.

        Whatever you say about APNI splitting up into left-right factions, I dont believe that is likely. It is more likely that selfish political ambition will take precedence over the greater good. If the Alliance Party becomes the biggest party, its leaders will “bend over backwards” to keep it together. My big fear is that it will become a populist monster, just like Fianna Fail has been, and that it will build an identity around anti-sectarianism which becomes so strong that it will use the fear of a return to sectarian politics to keep it together, thus blocking the entry of normal left/right politics.

        Why do I think that likely? It is because of the nature of the Irish psyche. Voters tend tend to be far more influenced by the “dont let the enemy beat us” rallying call. Tribalism is in their DNA. It is one of the key reasons why Fianna Fail has been successful for so long and it may yet prove to be its saviour come the next ROI general election.

        The other big flaw in the Alliance Party is that does not aspire to being a party allied to one of the National British Parties. This prevents NI citizens from having a say in who forms the Government. A consequence of that is that anybody thinking of voting for the Alliance party will not be supporting it on the basis of any of its national policy. The Alliance Party might have the best ideas on taxation (actually, it does not but that is beside the point) but those ideas will not be of any consequence to the Northern Ireland voter.

        In many instances, the Alliance Party happily “rubber-stamps” the Lib Dem manifesto by adopting policies without thinking them through. They could be somewhat excused for this if they were in an alliance with a National Party which would defend the policy for them. For example, it is Alliance Party policy to lower the voting age to 16. Their manifesto contains no reference to a young person’s cognitive development. However, such an anomaly would soon be exposed by comparison. If such a law was passed, a girl aged 16 in Northern Ireland would be old enough to vote but not be old enough to have sexual intercourse without her parent’s consent.

        I want a new kind of politics for Northern Ireland. I will not be tempted to go down the Alliance Route. The scenario that I have alluded to (the rise of a populist anti-sectarian monster) is not ‘normal’ politics.

        I never said that developing a successful centre-right non-communal party was ever going to be easy or that such a party would be successful in the short term. However, I am convinced that Northern Ireland needs such a party. Without it, I see little chance of normal politics breaking out in Northern Ireland during my lifetime, let alone during my working life.

        I fully accept that such a party will not get off the ground in my generation unless it has a significant support base to kick it off. The only potential support base that could be tapped into is the Northern Ireland Conservatives. That is why I continue with this campaign.

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