David Camerons appearance before the UUs has certainly provoked interest in Slugger. Whatever you think of it, it is a new political ingredient in a familiar cake mix and we’ll have to see if it rises. His speech must be seen in the wider context of his ambition to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not the Prime Minister of England.
Along with recent speeches in Scotland, it strongly implies a final rejection of the idea of an English Parliament. His approach must also cast doubt on Ken Clarkes plans for English votes on English laws which are probably unworkable anyway. Any vision to rebuild Conservative strength in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Wales is almost certainly a lost cause) would hardly be improved by any downgrading of their MPs voting rights and numbers in the Commons. Cameron will have to address this soon, as speculation mounts on a general election next year. In the short term he is probably more in need of alliances or understandings with other parties like the SNP in the event of a hung Parliament. This is why his demarche to the UUP is puzzling unless it is followed by a different type of offer to the DUP which might embrace a vision of a united unionism. Nothing Cameron said is directly contrary to the GFA (nor would Fianna Fail organising in the north). All the same, his failure to mention what used to be called the Irish dimension was a serious omission, even in his own interests.
A meaningful Conservative presence in NI politics could in reply revive demands for a Fianna Fail organisation. A significant presence of both parties and the inevitable contests between them , however limited, would be bound to boost the politics of the border. the last thing NI needs. Cameron should have spoken warmly about matters Irish generally, stressing the new relationship on the basis of internal and external equality, the trends towards virtual interchangeablity and adding in praise for the consistent democratic nationalism of the SDLP. Nationalism throughout these islands is now a permanent fact of life for the modern Conservative party as for everyone else. Since devolution a decade ago, Northern Ireland is no longer the only part of the UK with the right to separate; that right is now in reality if not in expressed law shared by Scotland and Wales. A bold recognition of this obvious fact would begin to allay those fears of Cameron biased against fair dealing for nationalists as Prime Minister and give a nudge of encouragement to less tribal politics. That’s what NI needs from the metropolitan parties. A” new unionism” if it is to mean anything at all has to be rebranded as convincingly non-sectarian and cosmopolitan. To get there, Cameron needs to go much further and take more than the garden centre vote with him.
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