A warning to the unionist parties

Unionists would be wise to resist the temptation to crow and come out as anti-Labour partisans in any hung parliament scenario or Cameron government. History shows that Labour were as good for unionism and often better than the Tories with whom they are now making up. This applies even to United Ireland supporters who are strong within Labour. The peace process is not yet a wasting asset. I found it remarkable at a hustings in Hammersmith last week that Andy Slaughter the Labour candidate and ex MP, proud of his Troops Out past and still wanting the British out of Ireland, explicitly supported continuing higher public spending in NI than in his own Hammersmith.

There are real risks for unionists of either party if they overplay their hand or raise expectations too high, buoyed up perhaps by a place in the government or a role in backing a minority administration. That will not transform their position or mean that a Conservative government is an Ulster Unionist government.  They could all too easily revive the sort of ire and contempt that unionism suffered from for generations, referred to by Nick Watt in his dreary “dreary steeples” and perfectly adopted by DT’s Mary Riddell

Would Mr Cameron really want to harness himself too closely with a party whose erstwhile campaign ,”Save Ulster from Sodomy” , mutated into what one newspaper called a “near pathological obsession with all things gay”? More recently, leading members of the DUP racked up such eye-watering sums in expenses that the leader and his wife, Iris, were dubbed “the swish family Robinson.” Ken Clarke, always one to tell it like it is, says: “In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society.”

Unionism or more appropriately Protestantism, is split over ” a modern sophisticated society” and now sends out the sort of mixed signals  we’ve seen in south Antrim and Irisgate. But the ultra evangelicals will find no more friends among the dominant Cameroons in the Conservative party than they will within Labour. Since the GFA and then St Andrew’s, unionists were gradually losing their pariah status at Westminster. Witness Brown’s extravagant compliments to Paisley on his retirement at the penultimate PMQs of the last Parliament. If unionists are wise they’ll plot a careful modernising course, Cameroon fashion.

 Brown and Cameron’s flirtations with the DUP haven’t disturbed my belief that dreams of unionist power broking are unlikely to amount to much. With all his experience I doubt if Peter Robinson is letting the attention he’s sought go to his head. All sides in this game are covering their bases, little more.

In the coming weeks unionists shouldn’t jump to conclusions either that the Owen Paterson agenda for reforming the Assembly system including a voluntary coalition  is about to enacted. They days have long gone when any Westminster government could act unilaterally in law and in fact.

Westminster is a warmer place for unionists now but they shouldn’t take it for granted. They will always need friends among all parties there, whatever the future of the Conservative-Unionist alliance or  the DUP.

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

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