The Watchman, and occasional contributor of longer think pieces gives his assessment of the announcement during the week of the proposed new alignment between the Ulster Unionists, and David Cameron’s new liberal ToriesBy The Watchman
“What I want us to explore with the Ulster Unionists is not really some kind of lets have some joint candidates or work together I want to be more ambitious than that.”
“I would like to see us establish a new political force in Northern Ireland that is both Conservative and Unionist, that can say to people, look, get beyond the old politics of constitution or orange or green.”
Those comments from David Cameron are remarkable, and unthinkable from almost any recent Tory leader. They are worth tracking down in full on Nuzhound. Previous Tory pronouncements about the Union were analogous to a husband assuring his wife of a lasting but loveless marriage. In seeking out the UUP, Cameron arrives with the political equivalent of chocolates, flowers and scented candles.
He seems confident enough that the next election is in the bag to turn his attention to the regional problems liable to affect a party with overwhelmingly English Parliamentary seats. The links with the UUP is one sign. There is also speculation of secret Tory-SNP talks that would give the Scottish Government greater autonomy in return for constitutional stability.
Even after Edward Heath stabbed the Ulster Unionists in the back, many within the party longed for a rapprochement with the Tories. Simon Heffers biography of the Great Enoch relates the anger felt in Powells South Down constituency party in the mid-1970s at their Members Labour sympathies. Two leading Tory backbenchers were even said to have turned up to constituency officers to agitate secretly against Powell.
As the years went on, many Ulster Unionists felt, rightly, that support for them was more likely to be found in the Conservative Party than anywhere else and that some form of renewed alliance would balance the pan-nationalist axis. They were often embarrassed by Paisleyism and craved the respectability that association with the Tories might give them.
The details of the new relationship between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists have still to be worked out. The UUP membership was certainly taken by surprise and may be unsettled by some of what their new suitor would like to see. The comments of Cameron quoted above go far beyond a simple renewal of pre-1974 links. It seems unlikely that the Ulster Unionist Council would vote to subsume itself into the Tory Party, the political equivalent of Stewarts becoming Tesco.
The small numbers of Tory activists already in Northern Ireland also seem hesitant. They see a deal as entailing the absorption of the UUP into the Tory Party as it presently stands. They may be disappointed. Perhaps the likeliest outcome of the talks is for a British version of the partnership on the German centre-right between the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria.
David Camerons wooing may be a lifeline for the UUP. Despite its morale-boosting council win in Dromore, the party has deep problems. It has not yet worked out a role for itself as the minor unionist party. In seeking new support, it cannot decide whether to go to the Garden Centre or to the Orange Hall.
Even a successful link-up with the Tories would not deliver votes to the UUP by the general election. It might shore up Lady Sylvia in North Down. If David Burnside fancies a return to Westminster, it could help him in South Antrim, where the ineffectual Willie McCrea will lose crucial votes to the TUV. Perhaps, and this is a long shot, the UUP could cut a deal with the DUP that might deliver it either South Belfast or Fermanagh South Tyrone.
But regardless of immediate paybacks, a coalition with the Tories would allow the UUP, under whatever title, to carve out a role for itself as a distinctively unionist party, in contrast to the latent Ulster nationalism of the DUP. Handled correctly, this could be the basis of a different form of unionism that reaches places that the DUP can never reach.
Curious times indeed.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty