Ulster Unionists and Conservatives to merge…

Well, well, well. Here’s a thing. The news from David Cameron and Reg Empey in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph (and here) is that the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have agreed to set up “a joint working group to explore the possibilities of a closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland”. Slugger understands that although the decision was made just a week ago, the party’s talks with the Tories began as early as last October. The news appears to have come as something of a shock to the DUP.Perhaps it shouldn’ have. This was Reg Empey’s speech last March:

I have given David Cameron an undertaking that if he succeeds in forming a new group in the European Parliament after the 2009 elections, outside the federalist leaning EPP, then the Ulster Unionists will support him by joining his new Group. It is vital that we build a pan-Union front, involving like minded parties who believe in the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. And it must spread to the European Parliament as well. The Union and the United Kingdom cannot survive if those who believe in it fight their own corners separately.

And judging by tomorrow’s joint Op Ed, it is clear that both Cameron and Empey are after the middle class liberal vote in Ulster every bit as much as the new liberal Tories are in Britain:

There are too many in Northern Ireland who have been put off playing any role (including voting) in politics by the vicious sectarian divisions of recent years. We believe that the creation of a new political and electoral dynamism will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community who want to leave the past behind and join together to see a 21st Century Northern Ireland in which every citizen is an equal citizen in the politics of the United Kingdom. We believe the time for change has arrived and we are determined to make it happen.

Northern Ireland has changed over the past decade. Much of that change was generated by David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. It is a change which has now been endorsed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in particular, who are governing together in the institutions created by the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Northern Ireland, by agreement of both sides, is no longer a “cold house” for either Irish Nationalists or Unionists.

There is now speculation building in Westminster that the tipping point was reached, not by the 42 days vote, that was got over at the first subsequent meeting between Robinson and Cameron, but the increasingly strident (some would say incessant) grandstanding by Iris Robinson on the subject of homosexuality. Indeed, if Iain Dale is any indication of the current temper of the Tory party, she may have caused her party some considerable damage in that quarter.

The DUP might also take note that the Ulster Unionists are not the rank amatuers they clearly were just a few short years ago. There has not been the slightest hint that negotiations were either ongoing, or as advanced as they clearly are. The Ulster Unionists may still only have one MP, but they may now be able to call on much more substantial resources of the Tory party. And perhaps too they finally have a purpose above and beyond the narrow protection of a Union that is no longer under coherent attack from those outside, but in danger of losing coherence from within.

And perhaps a future to aspire to rather than post glories to mourn.

…all the people of Northern Ireland need to be able to address and be fully involved in all the national issues that are not devolved – foreign affairs, defence, the strategic fiscal and expenditure issues and the broad thrust of social policy. Northern Ireland needs to be brought back into the mainstream of UK politics. It needs more full-time MPs working in the House of Commons, taking part in all the national debates.

It needs MPs who have the real prospect of assuming office as ministers in the government of the day at Westminster. Northern Ireland needs to be properly represented in the corridors of power – and Westminster needs to benefit from the undoubted skills of its people. For too long many of the most talented have been turned-off by a political discourse dominated by the politics of division rather than the mainstream political debate of the nation.