My relationship with the Conservative Party has had its ups and downs. Before the last general election I was summarily fired by the Party as Area Vice Chairman here, largely because of my public criticism of the ill-fated relationship with the hapless UUP. I also resigned my membership of the Conservative Party because of its willingness to enter into a sectarian carve-up in Fermanagh South Tyrone, in 2010, that turned into a head-counting fiasco.
I have also been critical of the coalition’s failure to address the public debt burden. Moreover, it has proved to be as ineffective at getting big policies right as its predecessor. The roll-out of universal credit has been a mess – even if the policy has virtue. Also, the help-to-buy scheme, in my view, was ill-conceived.
But tomorrow I’ll be voting Conservative for the same reason that I argued decades ago – when I first got involved in the campaign to have the main British political parties organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs to be part of the mainstream political debate.
As evidenced last night on the so-called NI Leaders’ Debate (where only one local party leader showed-up) our political discourse remains in the tribal swamp. It’s a key reason why turnout here at the last UK general election was the lowest of any UK region. If turnout tomorrow is as low a likely reason is the inability of local politicians to reinvent themselves, now that there is no constitutional crisis to worry about.
Our political parties are stunted relics of a debate that bores us all witless. Our “two communities” no longer exist. Indeed the institutions here try to maintain tribal designations for a population that is, increasingly, having none of it.
Roy Fisher has been fighting a lone campaign to highlight the extent of misinformation in relation to our sectarian head-counting. Fewer and fewer people here self-identify as either Protestant or Catholic and yet, despite this, the sectarian definitions rumble on. Even if we don’t call ourselves Catholic or Protestant, public bodies still insist on categorising us based on our parentage or our upbringing.
In Northern Ireland on Census day 2011, 10.11% of us selected ʻNoneʼ when asked to designate our religion. A further 6.75% of the population exercised the right by law not to disclose their religion to the census.
Therefore, a substantial percentage of our population chose not to identify themselves with the two supposed communities that underwrite every political discussion. And polling evidence suggests, also, that ‘Catholic’ is no longer a euphemism for Irish Nationalist. Nor do Protestants have a uniform set of political opinions – on the constitution, the economy, or law and order or anything else.
In short, our society is much like any other democracy. But our political parties fail to reflect that.
It’s for that reason that tomorrow I’ll vote Conservative. I’ll be voting for a party that doesn’t fixate on religion as a means of defining the electorate. I’ll be voting for a candidate, Helen Osborne (Lagan Valley), who has identified important local issues that she’s campaigning on – such as the need to address traffic problems at Sprucefield. Dull, certainly – but important for local constituents.
The Conservative Party, frankly, doesn’t do a great job at reflecting my views on many issues. I’m uneasy with several of the policies it’s campaigning on. I detect a lack of ideological passion in David Cameron. I fully understand the criticisms of a front bench team that seems to be toff-dominated.
But, all things considered, it’s the best of a bad bunch. It’s also one of only two UK-wide political parties that seek my vote and seek a mandate to govern the whole of the UK. None of the local political parties, in my view, fulfils the criteria of political party. None aspires to govern (with the exception of Sinn Fein, which aspires to govern another political jurisdiction). None appears willing to secularise.
So, warts and all, The Conservatives have it. Hope they appreciate it.
By the way, I’ll be on Good Morning Ulster (BBC Radio Ulster) from around 7:00am on Friday morning as the UK wide results come in. Tune in. Tweet lots.