Can South Belfast be a new bastion of united unionism?
I don’t know what’s odder. The fact that I wasn’t able to fly from London to Belfast at the weekend, despite the bright, blue skies covering Southern England. Or the possibility that Unionism might do something sensible, twice, and in the same decade.
After the statesmanlike agreement to support one pro-Union candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, is there any chance that the UUP and the DUP will, even at the eleventh hour, do the same in South Belfast?
As the opinion polls in the rest of the country show, those who want as strong a showing as possible for both Ulster’s unionists in particular, and for British Conservatives more generally, have a vested interest that Peter and Sir Reg do just that.
Unionist failure to agree will mean four more years of the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell and no one in Northern Ireland, whatever their unionism or conservatism, benefits from one more vote potentially propping up Gordon Brown after the next election. Whatever else the last 40 years has done to the Province, unionists now can agree that if nationalists want to be just so, that’s up to them. As long as they do it constitutionally, we’re indifferent at worst and amused at best.
One of the more depressing things about Alasdair McDonnell, an otherwise excellent, constitutional democrat, is that during the course of his failed SDLP leadership bid, he started casually smearing unionists as being ‘sectarian’. Our crime? That we didn’t want to send him back to parliament for another five sleepy years. Just as unionists acknowledge the legitimacy of McDonnell’s aspirations, he should extend to us the same basic courtesy of respecting ours. And with the best will in the world, one of those is we’d quite like to send someone else to Westminster.
In South Belfast, this ambition confronts supporters of the Union and opponents of Gordon Brown with a problem, for who’s better placed to realise it? The DUP were in a strong second place last time, and boundary changes haven’t worsened their case.
But to believe that, in the context of two unionists standing, Jimmy Spratt will win this time, you have to believe both that the DUP hasn’t weakened at all since 2005, and that McDonnell’s position, pace the total available nationalist vote, hasn’t strengthened. I’m all for sunny optimism, but that’s pushing it. While Paula Bradshaw has an even harder case to make — that she’s going to leap from third to first place, despite all the recent electoral history of the seat showing the clear odds against this.
Sir Reg Empey and Peter Robinson were equally brave in putting aside past, and petty, differences to seal the deal in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in support of Rodney Connor. And they both showed considerable ingenuity in arriving at a formula that made this possible. It is not beyond the wit of both men to do the same thing for South Belfast. David Cameron has shown an enthusiasm for the unionist cause we haven’t seen in a Tory leader for several generations, and whether or not he becomes Prime Minister, it is a fundamentally good thing for our place in the Union that we have the support of the Tory Party. Our credo is not ourselves alone, and we should be grateful and thankful for our friends across the rest of the country.
During one of the Tory Party’s less than electorally glorious phases in the last 13 years, I worked in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Northern Ireland flitted in and out of the consciousness of the then Leader’s mind as a Good Thing certainly, but more often than not, as a problem. With the victory, however partial and unsatisfactory the details, of constitutional democracy over terrorist violence, it’s now time for us to be an opportunity. With goodwill on all sides, South Belfast can be one for both Unionists and Conservatives.
Christopher Montgomery works in political PR in London, and is a previous Director of Friends of the Union