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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London