More on the Conservatives and the Unionists in Northern Ireland: the importance of getting constitutional politics right

In an attempt to make sense of what has been going on Hillsborough Castle, I’ve been following Eamonn Mallie’s Twitter feed (available here) – the first time I’ve found a use for that particular medium.  But the most interesting thing Mallie has mentioned, but not covered by any other source that I’ve seen, is this tweet:

“It’s good to be among friends.” The words of Sylvia Hermon addressing an SDLP dinner in Bangor? I wonder what she meant ?

Hermon is, of course, the Ulster Unionists’ sole MP at Westminster, and deeply unhappy about the connection with the Conservatives and particularly the requirement that she take the Tory whip.

If a moderate, social-democratically-inclined, Unionist is finding herself more comfortable in the company of her moderate, social-democratic nationalist counterparts, that may say something one hadn’t expected about the ability of the St Andrews Agreement to drive together the ‘moderate centre’ in Northern Ireland.  (I’m still sceptically inclined to regard it as the exception not the rule, though.)  But the one thing the British Conservatives did not intend in creating the UCUNF alliance was to fracture the Unionist community along left-right lines – and if that is the result of the alliance, it suggests it has misfired in even more ways than one thought.

There are already quite widespread suggestions that UCUNF is all but dead, including by Michael Crick here and David Gordon here.  Even if that’s so (and I’d regard its demise as on the whole a good thing), it will not resolve a number of serious problems that arise from its creation.  The Conservatives will be seen as being a partisan actor in Northern Ireland, and so incur (greater) mistrust from the nationalist community.  That can’t help further British policy in stabilising and normalising politics in Northern Ireland.

There is one lesson the Tories must learn from this: territorial constitutional politics are highly complex, and the law of unintended consequences applies in a particularly strong form.  It’s imperative to think long and hard about any action before taking it.  That thinking has to be long-term and strategic; the time-scale to expect results is 10-15 years, not 3-5 years (which is about as far ahead as politicians usually think).  Electoral advantage is far from the most important consideration to be pursued, again in contrast to the way politicians usually operate.  If this bitter experience ensures that the next UK Government understands that, it will not have been entirely damaging.

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2 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland

2 responses to “More on the Conservatives and the Unionists in Northern Ireland: the importance of getting constitutional politics right

  1. St Etienne

    ‘constitutional politics’ – is that the politically correct phrase for the sectarian status quo?

    If a bread & butter party like the Tories wish to set up over here in NI and it causes a few ruptures amongst the current crop of pseudo-governing failures, so much the better. Why should they bend to failed politics?

    Sincerely
    NI Voter.

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