The story of the Ulster Unionists and the Tories

As debate rages on about the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives Fionnuala O Connor, writing in the Irish Times (see here) offers an interesting piece about the nature of their new relationship and how Mr Cameron is perhaps using the UUP to suit his own party political needs.

What is clear is that the UUP are in a mess about this; as their membership continue to raise questions, questions which are being raised in the media.

In the September issue of Fortnight magazine I offered my own comment on the spiraling story.

A marriage of convenience or the beginning of a new political friendship?

As the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Conservative Party embark on making history in a new political setup, questions have been raised about such an alliance. Will it help the UUP re-establish themselves as the main Unionist party? Or is this new relationship one of convenience, or one of political survival?

As the Conservative’s look to the next general election with excitement, given recent showing in opinion polls in Great Britain (GB), they are preparing the way for government. In a joint statement in the Daily Telegraph in July the leaders of both parties, the UUP’s Sir Reg Empey and Conservatives David Cameron stated that the move marked a closer relationship in politics between NI and GB, making mainstream British politics more relevant to NI. However politics in NI and GB are very different and have been since the Home Rule crisis of the late 19th Century. Ireland became a game of tug of war as the Conservatives and Liberals battled it out for the seat of power in Westminster. This recent move draws interesting parallels between then and now.

The Conservative party, going by opinion polls looks set to form the next government in Westminster. However the house itself may be divided and therefore the Conservatives will have to rely on the support of other political parties, and naturally the UUP fall into the frame. The Conservatives and UUP (before the rise of Ian Paisley’s DUP) have always had a close relationship, to put aside differences over the Anglo-Irish Agreement which angered Unionists. This relationship was prevalent during the Home Rule crisis until the establishment of NI in 1921 and after as the UUP took the Conservative whip in the House of Commons until 1974. However distinction was drawn between London and Belfast as mainstream political parties, including the Conservatives, distanced themselves from Ireland and more particular Northern Ireland. Unionists in the newly formed state were left to map out their own future – as a separate state away from the Irish Free State and GB.

Coming back to here and now, the UUP may have seen this as an opportunity to do two things. The first is to see off threats from the DUP and Alliance in battle for the middle-ground. Secondly it offers the UUP a chance to attempt to re-launch themselves on the back of David Cameron, after having failed to do this alone.

Since 2003 the UUP has been desperate for revival in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement and rise of the DUP. Having failed to market themselves as the Ulster Unionist Party – ‘For all of us’ – they are seeking to make a fresh appeal with a British Conservative tinge. How will a merger affect the DUP? In short, it poses no threat. This is largely due to the setup of Northern Irish society. The DUP has successfully established itself with the Unionist electorate in NI and with mainstream Unionist opinion. The DUP offer the best way of opposing Sinn Fein, that’s what brought them into power, as the main Unionist party in 2003 in the wake of the Belfast Agreement.

However this goes deeper – ever since the late 19th Century Unionists in Ulster organised themselves independently, therefore distancing themselves from mainstream British parties. This was partly due to a lack of trust with Unionists in Ulster who sought to define their own destiny, within the United Kingdom. Backed up by many clubs and societies, particularly the Orange Order Unionists mobilised themselves under one diverse group uniting liberal and conservative opinion. This became more prevalent in 1905 with the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council, the backbone to the modern day UUP.

The recent move could secure a better future for the UUP than they would have had if they had weathered the continuing political storm alone. The UUP will never regain Unionist support over the DUP, largely due to the change in leadership within the DUP making the party more appealing to secular Unionists. The best they can hope for is to play second fiddle to Robinson’s new DUP as the party weather the growing storm at Stormont. The trouble with the UUP is that no one can take them seriously and the new link up with the Conservatives will buy them time and some support, but not enough to gain David Cameron’s sought after seats in the House of Commons.

(Edited version appeared in Septembers issue of Fortnight Magazine)

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