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.
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.