Northern Ireland: the Conservatives and the Unionist parties

One issue that has emerged over the last few days has been the ‘Hatfield House summit’, and the attempt brokered by shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson and Lord Salisbury to secure an electoral pact between the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists.  The consequences of this have attracted widespread criticism, whether from UK Labour government spokesmen, Guardian journalists like Nicholas Watt or Henry McDonald, or politicians like Sylvia Hermon MP (a Unionist but not a Tory) or prospective Conservative candidates Sheila Davidson and Peter McCann (Tories but not Unionists).  About its only defender appears to be Ben Brogan in the Telegraph, though his reasoning hardly strikes me as cogent.

Generally, I’ve been inclined to think that Conservative devolution policy in general is more consistent and thought-through than many do.  It seems to me to be based on the idea of a clearer division of functions between UK and devolved levels, an attempt to improve relations between them by greater ‘respect’, and a stronger assertion of the UK dimension as a result.  It’s therefore a strategy that recognises devolution as an important part of how the UK works, but puts it into a Unionist framework as well.  In many ways, it’s a classic Tory policy, borrowing elements of the approach used successfully by the Canadian Conservatives immediately after Stephen Harper became prime minister, as well as British Conservative thinking.

The Northern Ireland policy was always hard to reconcile with this.  One could argue (as a friend of mine has) that this in fact might help to normalise Northern Ireland’s politics.  It would give voters a choice for a party that was competitive at UK level and indeed likely to form the next UK Government, and introduce a stronger role for policy issues into Northern Ireland politics.  It was therefore a move against parties being principally an exponent of one community’s positions.  However, it also entangled the Conservatives in Northern Ireland politics, putting the Conservatives emphatically on one side of the sectarian divide.  (It’s worth noting that attempts to ensure that Catholic candidates were selected for the new party have come to nought.)

The problem is that since the early 1990s UK Government policy has been based on acting as impartially as it could – as a reasonably honest broker between the two communities in Northern Ireland, not an advocate for one of them.  The standards it enforced were those of the UK as a state, applicable equally to all those living in Northern Ireland.  Ensuring that the UK Government could be trusted in that way by the nationalist community took a huge amount of work and considerable time, by both Conservative and Labour governments, for which the reward has been considerable, if not untarnished, success.  But it was founded on the UK Government having ‘no selfish strategic interest’ not just in Northern Ireland as a place, but in its electoral politics.  The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force meant that ceased to be the case.

The present problems flowing from Owen Paterson’s attempt to broker some sort of UUP-DUP agreement are a natural consequence of two things.  One is the way that the Belfast Agreement was predicated on recognising and entrenching the divide between unionist and nationalist communities.  As Robin Wilson and Rick Wilford have argued on many occasions since then (and set out most clearly in this 2006 paper), that created a drive to reinforce the extreme positions in each community, rather than a ‘pro-peace’ movement straddling both communities. From what I saw when I was there last year, that divide has only become more acute since devolution was restored in 2007.  For what it’s worth, my view is that policy should be based on strengthening cross-community ties, not limiting them. That would help to build a more ‘normal’ society in Northern Ireland, of the sort that would be recognisable to people living both in Britain and the Irish Republic.  While Northern Ireland’s politics and society remain as divided in sectarian terms as they are, it is emphatically not a ‘normal’ society.

Second is the fact that the British Conservatives have acquired a direct stake in Northern Ireland’s electoral politics.  Even if that stake is a modest one, it is sufficient to entangle the Tories in what happens there.  They have an immediate interest in electoral outcomes.  It’s therefore perfectly understandable that they seek to help their allies do well (and avoid the dangers of unionist votes being split three ways).  Once you’re playing the game, you have to play to win.  You can’t play ‘just a little bit’.  That means that this sort of step was largely inevitable once the Conservatives and official Unionists had formed their partnership.  The damage it has done was utterly predictable from the moment they first cemented the formal links with the UUP.

Did David Cameron intend this?  It’s hard to believe that a leader as focussed as Cameron on his larger strategic goals could have been. If he didn’t foresee this, it suggests his strategic thinking is not as thorough and systematic as it often seems.  If he did, what was he seeking to achieve?  The damage hugely outweighs any likely benefits.

Getting out of this pickle is going to be tough for the Conservatives.  The fact they got into it suggests that the Cameron leadership has real difficulties balancing its electoral interests (and the concerns of grass-roots members and back-bench MPs) with its strategic thinking let alone with the effective practice of government.  The Ben Brogan defence (‘the Conservatives are a unionist party and should act like one’) isn’t very convincing, since it runs counter to both the broader interests of the party and of voters in Britain, and undermines a rare bi-partisan success for which John Major and his government don’t get enough credit.  For a party which claims its ‘competence’ as a key difference with Labour, that should be a major source of concern. It emphasises the importance of a cogent and comprehensive intellectual underpinning for a policy, which is then consistently applied.

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