Before we all get too excited…

Just the thing to distract me from packing for the holidays… I’ve decided to pull this up from a comment to a blog.

After the first flush of excitement the next questions are:

What impact would a Conservative/ Ulster Unionist alliance have on the politics of power sharing? The move seems likely to provoke a quickening response on the nationalist side. Will the SDLP and Fianna Fail go tit-for tat? Might mergers heighten or reduce the border issue between the UK and Ireland as well as between the local party groups; or would they use them to develop the three- stranded relationship? Intriguing stuff. But there are big risks as well as opportunities in all of this…

One basic flaw in the historic Ulster Unionist position is that while they have felt themselves part of the British State, they have never truly belonged to the British “political nation”. Sometimes Ulster and British unionism coalesced as in 1910-1914 at the pre-natal stage of the original Northern Ireland State. Interests traumatically diverged at the imposition of Direct Rule in 1972.

The cement of the political nation is the system of major parties to which the Unionist don’t belong, in spite of historic links. Playing the minor parties game at Westminster only emphasises their outsider role.

If the UU aim is to revive the old Molyneaux/Powell ambition of full integration, it is doomed to failure. Constitutionally it was just viable, (even if politically a non-starter) up to 1972 and even 1998, just about. The GFA changed all that and no British government will roll it back.
In the short term, I can’t see the political earth moving over support for Jim Nicholson’s re-election as MEP next year. For the next Westminster election, a major quick dividend for the UUs seems unlikely. Any UU dreams of an all-out, Cameron-led assault on all DUP strongholds seem fated to stay fantasy. Foster-like wrangling over nominations is unlikely to cease to put it mildly ( eg south Belfast). Cameron facing perhaps a hung Parliament or a narrow majority, is unlikely to burn his boats with the DUP. For him, UU links are not so much an electoral ploy. Rather, they are a small banker for the election and represent a counterweight to the pull of little England by developing pro-union links where the Conservatives barely exist. The Conservative leader in other words is preparing to govern an asymmetrical Union without conceding the rest of the UK outside England to parties like the SNP who are outside the “political nation,” by virtue of their nationalism. Alignment with the UUs is a modest part of the Conservative fightback in S,W and NI.

Locally, the SDLP as the other party in danger of eclipse faces similar opportunities and risks. For both, associations with bigger political brands could boost their morale and perhaps even save them.
But come election time, political momentum would be unpredictable. With a merged identity or an electoral pact, Conservative/UU on the one hand and FF/SDLP on the other could prove a huge distraction from getting down to power sharing and heighten the border and identity questions, when that’s the last thing needed.

What other role can there be for the UUs and the SDLP than narrowing the sectarian divide? What would absorption or alliance with metropolitan parties do to stimulate cross- community voting, surely the essential stimulus for creating even the glimmer of a chance for a voluntary coalition one day?

At worst, inappropriate links could even cut across the two parties’ long term interests and hamper the prospects for a stable political future.

How ironic would it be for SF and the DUP to be left posing as the real champions of power sharing which the UUs and SDLP had essentially shaped.

Sinn Fein have no such problems of synergies, as the only “national” party on either side of the divide. On the other hand, they have no fall back either. Is their choice not “a United Ireland or nothing” or lapsing into moderate nationalism in a couple of decades or so?

For their part, both sets of national parties in London and Dublin have greater responsibilities than synergies with the locals. They must take care not to allow any talk of party partnerships to become a distraction from the real imperative for Northern Ireland, which is to make power sharing government work.

Any suggestion that the pulls of London or Dublin are any sort of alternative, when you look at it, is mutually self-defeating.

But if such alliances were invoked by London and Dublin to press local noses to the grindstone of good government by power-sharing, then they might be worthwhile after all.

  • joeCanuck

    Now that’s just plain silly, Brian, you losing focus like that. Your priority is to pack and get down there. If you’ve never been, try to visit Barleycove and environs. Awesome scenery and a nice friendly pub when I was last there. Mind you, that was 25 years ago and the place may now be “blighted”.

  • mnob

    I’m really confused how does the GFA rule out full integration ?

    That’s just plain silly.

    Flipping that argument around SF are an all island party and therefore ‘given the UK dimension’ in NI shouldnt be allowed under the GFA terms ??

    Like it or no – NI is governed from Westminster. NI MPs sit in Westminster not Dublin so surely we should be allowed to vote for parties which can actually govern us.

  • mnob

    … and surely integration would *decrease* the border dimension as the UU morphed into good old (new ?) fashioned right/left politics as a (?)right wing party.

    The message would not be vote for us we’re a unionist party it would be vote for us we believe in small government, individual freedom …

    That would get my vote.

  • kensei

    Sinn Fein have no such problems of synergies, as the only “national” party on either side of the divide. On the other hand, they have no fall back either. Is their choice not “a United Ireland or nothing” or lapsing into moderate nationalism in a couple of decades or so?

    Do “moderate Natioanlists” not want a United Ireland?

    There is also little evidence that the UUP was ever particular moderate. The SDLP far slightly better, but when pushed came to shove abandoned “post Nationalism”.

  • Driftwood

    A secular unionist party…Bring it on!

  • Twilight of the Prods

    ‘The cement of the political nation is the system of major parties to which the Unionist don’t belong, in spite of historic links.’

    Talk about Owl of Minerva stuff, eh Brian? Are we all finally completing that long turning circle back to the B&ICO;?

    We’ll see. This UUP move is simply a last clammy grasping at a frayed ideological rope. The DUP is firmly entrenched as the communal leader and they can foresee no viable means of eating into that. So they have to clasp onto a political force outside our wee system, to avoid being utterly eclipsed or absorbed by the DUP. This is not Conservatism, this is not ideological integrationism, this is simply about survival. There is no ideological or integrationist motor behind this; a while back the UUP was canoodling with the ‘old labour’ politicians of the PUP, hardly a party of state, in an attempt at relevancy. This is a more developed outworking of that quest for a profile and purpose, thats all.

  • Quagmire

    This will all make little difference. No nationalist/Republican is going to vote for them anyway and it won’t halt the current trend of an ever increasing nationalist and diminishing unionist demographic. At some point within the next 20 years we will have a 50/50 demographic with, if the recent exam results are anything to go by, a nationalist intelligencia in all the top positions and in effect running our wee country into an all-Island Republic whilst the majority of our unionist friends will be still running around burning tyres, painting kirb stones wondering where it all went wrong.

  • Twilight of the Prods


    Central point about the 50/50 demographic is bang on, too many avert their eyes from the communal structures and imperatives of a divided society which is still largely intact; although the hoped for incremental ratcheting towards Irish unity is fable, but if it comforts some there is no harm. London and Dublin want to manage and contain us, not experiment with our constitution, and tick off communities with a history of militancy.

    I fear the only economic unification will be the sight of our children working together in a Dublin Stabucks. But,given the throbbing grey matter of the nationalist intelligentsia, your kid will at least hold a managerial position.

  • Quagmire

    “hoped for incremental ratcheting towards Irish unity is fable” and “London and Dublin want to manage and contain us, not experiment with our constitution”
    Posted by Twilight of the Prods on Jul 24, 2008 @ 03:43 PM

    Unfortunately their ability to manage and contain us ,as you put it, is severely and ultimately thwarted by the consent principle found within the GFA. All that is required by law is a mere 51% of the 6 county population. If we were to have a referendum today nationalism would only need an approx 6%-7% swing from within unionism. This may be seen to be happening already i.e. and
    Moreover as time goes by this 6%-7% is continuously eroding and , as stated previously, within the next 20 years the demographic is set equalise at 50/50. Time and logic is on nationalism’s side.

  • Greenflag

    BW ,

    ‘One basic flaw in the historic Ulster Unionist position is that while they have felt themselves part of the British State, they have never truly belonged to the British “political nation”. ‘

    Indeed but it’s one of only many flaws . Overall I would expect little difference . The huge disparity in numbers between ‘both’ parties would make for the usual lopsided relationship of former decades anyway .

    Nationalists and Republicans will yawn at the prospect . Mr Cameron will make use of the UUP if he can and ditto the DUP . It’s all about votes at Westminster come the next election . Both the UUP and DUP will be hoping for a narrow Tory victory as that’s the only card they have left to play. At Mr Brown’s present rate of implosion the UUP and DUP’s card looks more like a deuce than an ace .

  • fenian bastard

    1. Brian. “in all of this” is a phrase copywright to Gerry Adams. I hope you cleared it’s use with him.

    2. Quagmire. Nationalist Intelligentcia? They can’t even spell it! (Or kerb).

  • It was Sammy McNally what done it

    Looks to me like a good move for the UU – probably secure their future but implicitly recognises that they will be in effect a party for middle class prods who cant stomach DUP evangelicism and religiosity. Good move by Wee Reggie. Probably lose Tories some votes in the UK(proper) as most Irish nationalists wouldnt touch the tories with a barge pole for historical reasons.

  • Quagmire

    “Nationalist Intelligentcia?”
    Posted by fenian bastard on Jul 24, 2008 @ 04:35 PM

    Why did you use a capital “I” for intelligentsia? Why did you spell intelligentsia wrongly when trying to correct me? People in glass houses and all that!

  • Twilight of the Prods


    Your point about the rough communal equalisation is quite correct in my view. But Dublin and London will always want to corral us, either within the UK, or as some oddball condominium. One thing transparent through Irish history is the reluctance of the Irish state to govern NI while it is expensive, and has a large community opposed to unification. And when Dublin and London get their heads together, they can do all sorts of interesting things with the legalities of the GFA. Reasons of state and national interest trump legalities, and as a creation of these two states, there are whole pages of the Agreement which will fold and twist like origami, when they so wish it. Especially if the two communities are locked in rough parity.

    This conservative foray seems at first to work against this political quarantineing – but I’ll bet, that like the Fianna Fail forays north of the border, it is for short term small fry political gain, and will slip off the wider radar. The UUP will only be welcome for the (very) odd seat it may bring to the Conservative Commons total, and just maybe as a signal to certain scottish constituencies about the Tories British unionism. All the UUP will get is a PPS somewhere. Knox Cunningham how are ye?

  • Dave

    Quagmire, you’re making the classic mistake of assuming that all Catholics are nationalists, and that no nationalists are of the cultural rather than constitutional variety. It won’t be the big issue that determines the outcome of any border poll; it’ll be a 1001 and one little issues, and many nationalists will be revealed as the cultural variety when they support the status quo because that serves any one of said 1001 little issues. You also need to sell Irish unity to your own tribe, because the latent strategy of the GFA was to adsorb your tribe into the UK by supporting that status quo, knowing that resistance would weaken once accommodating improvements were made to it. If they could make it look and feel like a united Ireland, calling it an all-Ireland, then the Shinners and their masters hoped to undermine constitutional nationalists by making them cultural nationalists. Cameron isn’t playing ball with that approach, or so it seems.

  • Twilight of the Prods


    Well and good, and a lot of truth as far as it goes, but develop your thinking just a little further. Some catholics will vote to sincerely get rid of the border, and some, placid and happy, will vote on the 1001 little issues to keep NI it where it is, and some more will vote against the union, cos to do otherwise would send a signal that the croppies have laid down. And they may make the caluclation that that would be problematic for their community. The basis for politics here is communal, the constitutional issue weaves through it but is not the whole story. And that is why the Tory and Unionist kiss fest is just the case of a party of protestants gripping onto the hem of a party of state. It is not the development of a new ulster Conservatism drained of communalism.

  • Hert

    On paper it’s more like thirty years than twenty years. However there is a very high likelihood that NI will never have a 50%+1 Catholic majority. Why? Because in 2038 (or whenever) NI will probably be about 10% ethnic minority like GB is today. This is before secularisation, mixed marriages etc. are taken into account (which already made the 2001 figures about 5% nonsense). By 2038 the question may well have become less tribal rather like the question of Scottish independance is today.

  • Hert

    By “Catholic” I of course meant “Catholic community background” or “taig” or whatever the appropriate term is. 😉

  • seanzmct

    Most commentators have missed the point. The people of Northern Ireland should be afforded the democratic right to join and vote for national all-UK OR all-Ireland parties if they so wish. The restriction of the region to communal parties of sectarian interest has long been a root cause of the conflict.

    Cameron is making a mistake in cosying up to the UUP.The UUP is overwhelmingly a protestant party with a continuing Orange connection. The Tories are sending out a very negative message to pro-union catholics of conservative inclination in the province.

    The Tory party already has members and organisation in the North and Cameron should be actively campaigning for its expansion. If any UUP people wish to join then well and good. The aim should be for the Tories here to take votes off the UUP rather than forging some sort of electoral liaison with it.

  • ggn

    “you’re making the classic mistake of assuming that all Catholics are nationalists, and that no nationalists are of the cultural rather than constitutional variety.”

    It is true that when polled some Catholics state that they are not in favour of a united Ireland, however given the determination of unionists to alienate Catholics from the union, for example the concerns of nationalist are presented by the DUP as a measure of their successes, and the absolute marraige of protestantism with unionism I think the emergence of catholic unionists on any scale is unlikely.

    I also feel that the likely hood of re-partition in the event of an united Ireland referendum would encourage almost all catholics into the united Ireland camp for fear that they would end up on the wrong side of any future border – one thing being in Northern Ireland, quite another to be an almost totally protestant state which could well be more theocratic that democratic.

    In addition, in my experience unionism and in particular the DUP has shown agression toward the Catholic Religon, Catholic education, Traditional Music, Gaelic games and the Gaelic language language. It would be a rare nationalist who would not care about at least one of this things.

    In a repartitioned Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that the DUP would accept Catholic education (it is their stated position after all) and therefore the culture included in that package (Gaelic games and language not being accepted in the State education system even today).

    In my experience nnorthern nationalists who may not support a united Ireland in some circumstances could be catergorised into thre basic types – 1. Cultural nationalists who feel that partition is actually helping the Irish language and that unionists would demand the head of the Irish language on a plate in any united Ireland 2. Hardcore anti-Free Staters and 3. people who feel that violence should be avoided at all costs therefore if even a small number of unionists resort to violence it would not be worth it.

    However, in short I dont think much store can be put in Catholic Unionists to save the union.

    Only a referendum would give us the answer however.

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    Please, just go, aready.

  • frustrated democrat



    I know many Unionist Catholics who don’t think they are Irish nor want a UI. They think they are British and will vote to be British. There are millions of 1st / 2nd generation people in GB with Irish roots who think they are British and vote in English/GB elections.

    All Catholics are not Irish nor do they wish to be!

  • JD

    This particular comment stood out in the Cameron-Empty statement

    “Alarmingly, a full 29% of the workforce are paid by the state against 20% for the UK overall. There needs to be a concerted 25-year programme to rebuild the private sector.”

    It is a sentiment many Fianna Failers on this site have expressed and justified as a rationale for Fianna Fail entering six county politics. Last September in contrast to Reg Empey NI Tories welcomed FF’s move into the Northern Political scene.

    I know that Fianna Fail and the SDLP negotiators have since their last meeting declared that FF are not contesting elections in the north soon (Brian Cowen) and that the SDLP would like an all Ireland “contract” with Fianna Fail (Patsy McGlone). However SDLP/FF and UUP/Tory combinations are gradually taking shape – what do they have in common?

    Both in the North would be more middle class and economically liberal than SF/DUP and SDLP & UUP have played with the idea of a joint opposition on bread and butter issues. This is not a classic left right divide but rather an economic liberal v statist divide.

    Sinn Fein and the DUP will be organisationally far stronger than the SDLP/FF and UUP/Tory combinations, but a debate might well open up as to what type of society and economy should the North be. Admittedly a very conservative debate (what else would we expect in the north), but a SF/DUP V Fianna Fail/Conservative party system would be more vigourous than the existing political dispensation with a somewhat more policy oriented debate

    SF/DUP won’t be swept away but it does offer new possibilities – and the possibility of cross community opposition/competing blocs (Economic Liberal V Statist

  • perry

    I think Cameron will need to make clear that a condition of the Tory whip, and the potential for government seats is that those using the Conservative franchise in NI don’t tarnish his shiny new brand. That should mean taking a positve Welsh Tory type stance on language and dropping any/all Orange connections.

    There’s more. Parties who want strong following and a chance of UK government in NI should stop calling themselves unionist and instead just state that they’re cross-community Northern Irish GFA zealots. Until such time as a majority chooses to vote yes to the Republic in a referendum on where NI sovereignty is placed (which I think needs to be on every general election ballot paper so that in the meantime we can park it every four years and get on with the bread and butter) they will accept the whip of a GB party in exchange for the right for NI people to have their representatives participate in any government that GB party forms.

    We need franchisees branded the NI Conservatives, NI Liberal Democrats and NI Labour.

    Parties wishing to hold to the purest of republican credentials could make a show of their abstention from any GB party whip or government (or westminster vote) rather than abstain entirely from representing their constituents at Westminster.

    If someone with a business in NI would prefer a Cameron-style government for so long as we stay in the UK, with top level NI input, but have a long term aspiration for a single government for our little island and the tax flexibility that being small seems to allow (ie a UI) then I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the option to vote NI Conservative now whilst being quite open about their long term nationalism.

    We also need PR for westminster elections in NI btw.