David Blackburn

The Tories’ meddling is undermining the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland

The Tories’ meddling is undermining the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland
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The Times reports that Owen Paterson, the Tories’ Northern Ireland spokesman, will review the process by which the Northern Ireland First Minister is appointed – by creating a Northern Irish executive and official opposition. The prospect of what Paterson describes as a “voluntary coalition”, presumably between the Unionist parties, has the potential to keep Sinn Fein permanently in opposition. Such a coalition jeopardises Cameron’s neutrality if he becomes Prime Minister, a point that Sinn Fein will exploit. The Conservatives seek to move Ulster’s politics away from sectarianism and into the mainstream, concentrating on public services. That is a welcome aim but their means are ill-conceived, stemming from a misunderstanding of Northern Irish politics.

Much is made of the Tory and UUP alliance but it is in disarray; for instance, no prospective parliamentary candidates have been selected. The reason? The UUP is not a Conservative party. It is a loose amalgam of socialists, conservatives, liberals, Catholics, Protestants and Atheists. Sylvia Hermon and Christopher and Michael McGimpsey are senior figures within the party whose socialism will not submit to Cameron. Sylvia Hermon has what might be pejoratively described as a Princess Diana-like popular appeal and has stated categorically that she will not stand under a Conservative banner. And Christopher McGimpsey remarked recently, “Not all Ulster Unionists are Conservative. This will cost us a lot of votes.”

So the Tories’ overtures are dividing the non-sectarian Unionist party and Sir Reg Empey is struggling to command his warring tribes. It is in this context that secret meetings with the DUP were sought to shore up the Unionist vote (there are also, I understand, financial reasons for doing so). Together with the meeting at Hatfield House, at which Paterson was also present, these talks were unacceptable to Catholic UUP members. Shelia Davidson and Peter McCann resigned and more UUP members will surely follow suit if Empey sides with Robinson. In short, the whole situation is an unmitigated mess.

Which direction will the UUP go? Well, your guess is as good as mine. The Executive Committee met yesterday to debate this. A source at the top of the party has told me that the UUP/Tory alliance is in its death throes. He welcomes that, believing that the party’s strength is its independence – he suspects that the independent UUP could win 6 seats; whilst there is no such enthusiasm for the Tories in Ulster. However, he concedes that he’s in a minority. Unless a list of Tory/UUP candidates is produced next week then Empey is likely to throw his hat in with Robinson, at which point the Tories must alter their policy for the sake of the peace process. It would have be far better had they not intervened in the first place.