“The Water is wide.” So start the lyrics to the eponymous song (I have a copy sung quite brilliantly by Mary Black). I would suggest that in political terms the waters between GB and Northern Ireland are also quite wide.
Alex Kane for one seems to be delighted by the prospect of the UUP and the Conservatives joining up, though he sees well the problems of the Tories baggage regarding Northern Ireland. The nature of any understanding between them be it affiliation, merger or something in between is of course as yet unclear. Kanes delight should of course come as no surprise: the most intellectually convincing and elegant of civic unionists, a man of moderate right of centre views would naturally welcome the potential union / affiliation of his party with the Conservatives.
I confess, however, to being dubious about whether or not this is likely to save the UUP: I suspect it may do little other than temporarily save their leader; I would be very happy to be wrong, however. A number of people have speculated on what David Cameron may gain from this. These possibilities range from the completely short term cynical to the suggestion that this is someone trying to rebuild a unionist party in the sense of advocating the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
What Reg Empey gains from this is rather easier to see. Despite the excitement surrounding their victory in the Dromore by election, the UUP still seem to be in a state of drift. Sometimes they seem to be trying to woo potential Alliance supporters, on other occasions they seem to be trying to cross the DUPs T to end up more hard line. In all this Empey has seemed to either try to hold the ring between the hardliners and the semi Alliance types or flip flop between the two positions seemingly at random. Maybe that is unfair but Empey has seemed to be effectively rudderless. He is not an especially charismatic leader and has maybe largely been saved from the men in grey suits by the lack of a convincing alternative.
By pulling the Conservative rabbit out of his hat Emepy, however, now seems to be clever and cunning and maybe even having real vision in trying to move unionism in general and the UUP in particular into a more central place within the UK (out of the orangery).
There remain many problems in any such plan, however.
All politics is local and it seems very unlikely that any bright shiny young English Tories will be drafted in to fight for Ulster seats (I will come back to English bright young things later). As such we are very likely to be left with the current UUP politicians albeit possibly with a new name. Without wishing to play the man the UUP have few convincing performers young or old. I well remember Martina Purdys withering assessment of the Young Turks who were sent in to retake the DUP seats in 2005. She described them as lambs to the slaughter. The older UUP representatives are also not exactly exciting, charismatic or politically successful either.
The next problem which Alex Kane correctly identifies is the Tories baggage for unionists. Despite the traditional mistrust with which many grassroots unionists have viewed the Labour Party it was the Conservatives and not Labour who prorogued Stormont, were instrumental in Sunningdale, created the Anglo Irish Agreement, commenced talks with the IRA. Labour on the other hand despite the partys once declared support for a united Ireland by consent never showed much interest in changing the constitutional arrangements here prior to Mr. Blairs hand of history etc. Unionists have very long political memories and in this case might be inclined to hold the sins of the fathers against their political sons.
As I alluded to earlier it is unlikely that there will be many bright young English (or Scottish / Welsh) Tories coming here to fight elections. I do not really see Fermanagh / South Tyrone nor even East Londonderry having a young ex-Etonian / Oxbridge UUP candidate. There has, however, in the past been a rather idealised welcoming of young English conservatives by the UUP leadership. It is almost seems that a good public school education and a bit of received pronunciation can bewitch some UUP types. The classic example of this of course was Steven King. He was undoubtedly talented, cultured and affable; he worked hard for the party. Yet his understanding of Northern Irish politics and the unionist grassroots was always a bit sketchy and despite his undoubted hard work for the party he was at least in part responsible for Decent People vote unionist which if the Labour Partys 1983 manifesto was the longest suicide note in British political history, the UUPs 2005 effort was a short snappy bullet in the head.
I raise the spectre of King because I wonder sometimes whether some in the UUP regard Cameron in a similar light, along with the added awe of PM in waiting (before anyone gets too carried away remember Neil Kinnock in 1992). Cameron may well be very talented and very well able to win English votes. Political success, however, frequently does not travel well and in political terms the North Channel is wide and its waters are deep. The lustre of a Cameron endorsement may have some weight in North Down and South Belfast but amongst the Dreary Steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, amongst the dour Presbyterians of East and North Antrim and the Orangemen of County Londonderry, I wonder just how bright the lamp of Cameron-ism will shine.
Even within the Pale a tie up with the Conservatives may not be unalloyed joy: an Alliance member acquaintance of mine suggested that this would be an opportunity for Alliance to attract leftish unionists who might be a bit peeved that the UUP was joining forces with the Tories.
I do wish this endeavour success, as the Watchman is likely to be correct that this tie up can reach unionists who would never vote DUP. However, as our own Darth Rumsfeld has observed there is no guarantee that all those garden centre Prods are actually that liberal. I must admit that I think this whole episode is most likely to simply save Empey in the short term and have relatively little effect on the gradual gentle long term decline of the UUP.
To end where I began, with the song: maybe just maybe the Conservatives can build a boat which can carry two and then they can sail with the UUP.