The more cynical political analyst might conclude there were two Monster raving loony parties standing in the Rochester and Strood byelection this week that resulted in the return to Westminster of Mark Reckless, UKIP’s second MP and a former Conservative.
Standing on a ticket that was principally anti-immigration and anti-Europe – and Reckless got into deserved trouble for suggesting at the hustings that legitimate migrants from Europe and elsewhere would be sent home after staying a “fixed period”, not the official line – this was all about the politics of fear.
The new political kid on the block has maybe a couple of other policies including semi-privatising the NHS but overall there is a sense that apart from being pro-Union and profoundly Eurosceptic, this isn’t a group with any sense of how to govern, and no philosophy other than gaining a significant number of seats.
Although Reckless’ 2900 majority was not as large as predicted, and will no doubt be spun by the Conservatives, there is cause for concern. We should be worried as here in Northern Ireland the yellow and purple army is advancing with potential repercussions for North-South relations and racial harmony.
However the most significant piece of UKIP fall-out, were they to form a coalition with the Conservatives and maybe a light sprinkling of DUPs after the general election, would be the effect on the nature of “the union”. Although the Tories have a longer title, the Conservative and Unionist party, the second part of the phrase is now usually dropped.
Yet an obsession with fencing off the United Kingdom is part and parcel of UKIP’s very identity. And if, as they fervently hope, Britain left Europe, a much tougher border between Northern Ireland and Eire would be created with relations between Belfast and Dublin inevitably becoming less cordial.
Nigel Farage has visited the Province several times with controversy normally part of his hand luggage. Farage’s line on strengthening the borders of Northern Ireland could undoubtedly destabilise joint initiatives with Dublin. His footsoldiers are beginning to get active in places like Lisburn and their choice of candidates doesn’t always seem to be nuanced.
David Jones, who stood successfully as a UKIP councillor in Portadown, County Armagh in May, was condemned for remarks in which he appeared to be downplaying the death of a Catholic RUC officer in October 1998, five weeks after the constable lost an eye and suffered severe wounds from a blast bomb thrown by loyalists.
He said “Unfortunately, when you are standing up for liberties…the cost of those liberties can be very high.” That may be true but the way it was expressed was at the very least unhelpful.
Nigel Farage posted a message on the party’s Northern Ireland website afterwards, pleading: “Vote for a national political party, vote for a Unionist party, vote for one not tainted by any sectarianism of any kind at all but proud to be patriotic.” That may or may not win over republican voters.
A UKIP press officer, Hermann Kelly, recently claimed on Radio Ulster that he supported a united Ireland, so desperate was he to get support from both sides of our divide, but of course the party doesn’t.
Recent recruits unsurprisingly include defectors from the main Unionist parties. UKIP leader David McNarry, Strangford MLA, quit the Ulster Unionists over an internal argument in 2012 and has made some interesting pronouncements.
After the Scottish Yes vote, he wrote that the people calling for a border poll in Ireland were “political delinquents”. He also, after the Clacton byelection success, called UKIP’s momentum unstoppable.
Other recruits include Robert Hill a former DUP councillor who failed to get re-elected in the local elections this year and who gained publicity for consuming a Bacardi Breezer within the council chamber.
No doubt Farage, whose permanent prop is a pint of beer to indicate his blokeish credentials and disguise the fact he’s a privately educated former stockbroker, would approve.
Political buffoons can of course be a more serious threat that the straight guys – Boris Johnson may be a good Mayor of London but the idea of his presence in No 10, classical education notwithstanding, is worrying.
The reason the idea of the Farageists holding some putative balance of power is so worrying is partly because during the byelection campaign, there appeared to be some sort of overlap with Britain First, a BNP style party, who encouraged their members to print out fliers supporting Reckless.
It was definitely an ill tempered byelection. Members of the Britain First party clashed with anti-racist protesters. And when Labour’s able shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry Tweeted a pic of a modest terraced house in Rochester with a white van in front and three St George’s flags, she had to go as it looked like metropolitan snobbery.
Whatever the real identity of UKIP candidates, and the party is now desperately weeding out the real weirdos, their shtick is the little man against the establishment. As McNarry says, he’s for the underdog. And however unpleasant the pain of the former duopoly of British politics, this new landscape has to be faced up to.
Perhaps the time has come for Mike Nesbitt’s idea of Unionist parties deferring to each other in seats where neither can win, not only to beat the republicans but also UKIP. Otherwise, as the UK Independence Party targets 40 supposedly soft seats in the general election, we may find ourselves with a government that doesn’t just support the union, it imposes it.