Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Forty years after O'Neill, Ulster is once again at the crossroads

The 2010 General Election is shaping up as one of the most exciting and unpredictable in anyone's lifetime. Not just in Great Britain, but here in Northern Ireland.

My first impression of the first historic television debate was of a father discussing with his two sons how the family fortunes might be handled in the years ahead.

I saw a baby-faced David Cameron and an even younger-looking Nick Clegg arguing with the ageing Gordon Brown about what he had or hadn't done while they were growing up.

And there was the old man himself, smugly eyeing them up and down as if he felt they were still too immature to drive the tractor, never mind manage the farm.

This General Election is a fascinating battle across the generation gap. Solid maturity versus youthful exuberance. Gordon 'been there, done that' Brown up against the two young wannabe upstarts.

The history and behaviour of British voters tells us David Cameron and Nick Clegg won't win. Gordon Brown will lose by default.

That's what happened to Edward Heath, who took on the miners in 1974 and lost. And to James Callaghan, who did not survive the winter of discontent in 1979. And Margaret Thatcher who, eventually ran out of Tory friends in 1990. And her successor, the grey man himself, John Major, who was a beaten docket by 1997.

Only Tony Blair avoided such an ignominious end, cunningly stepping down and walking away into a new multi-million pound lifestyle. He escaped from Downing Street in 2007 just in the nick of time, before the roof sprung a leak.

Gordon Brown has displayed a safe pair of hands in these times of economic crisis, but that attribute is hardly enough to save him.

He now has to buck the great British political tradition of ditching parties and prime ministers even when the alternative is so unproven and inexperienced as Cameron and Clegg. The young pretenders may talk the talk, but can they walk the walk any better than Brown?

Still, Cameron must now have Downing Street in his sights. Victory is within his grasp, because people in Britain eventually like a change.

Like Tony Blair, he happens to be in the right place at the right time. He has the future about him, while Gordon Brown looks and acts like a man from the past.

Cameron can influence the outcome of the election here in Northern Ireland. The more likely he is to win, the better the chances of the local Conservative and Ulster Unionist candidates. They need him to ride higher in the pre-election polls.

Unionists are more likely to offer support if they believe he can deliver his promise that they will have a say in the next British Government. No Cameron in Downing Street spells no say for the Ulster Unionists and bad news for the party's electoral support.

There are certainly enough sceptics around to write off the Conservative and Unionist candidates. From the outset, Cameron himself took the view that neither party had much to lose.

The Conservatives were going nowhere in Northern Ireland as a spent electoral force and the Ulster Unionists were languishing in the shadow of the DUP.

The question is whether the get-together is a winner or further loser for both parties.

Certainly, in their selection of candidates, the Conservatives and Unionists have attracted some talented individuals.

Northern Ireland has far too many time-serving, double-jobbing, career councillors, MLAs and MPs. We need more people in power who have shown ability and achievement beyond the narrow confines of a local council chamber. The three-way unionist split in many constituencies offers a unique choice for voters. Peter Robinson's future hangs on the outcome. The Democratic Unionists should be deeply concerned by the challenge from the Traditional Unionist Voice, offering a protest vote if nothing else.

How many unionists are disillusioned with politics in general and the Stormont Assembly and Executive in particular? We will know the answer on May 7. The question is whether they will simply stay at home or use the TUV candidates as a channel for their discontent. The DUP is unlikely to retain anything like its past share of the unionist vote. If so, the knives will be out after May 6 for Peter Robinson.

Likewise, this is a make or break election for Reg Empey. He stands or falls on his strategy of linking with the Conservatives and must show gains to survive. The split between the DUP and TUV offers his new alliance a great opportunity to capitalise.

This election promises to be a battle for the hearts and minds of unionist voters, the like of which we have not seen since Ian Paisley took on Terence O'Neill. "What kind of Ulster do you want?"asked O'Neill in his 'Ulster at the Crossroads' speech 41 years ago.

Unionist voters will reveal again on May 6 what they really, really want. Their choice at the ballot box may well signal a change of direction and leadership for the DUP or the UUP, or both.

The outcome is unpredictable, but the ramifications run deep. Unionism is at a new crossroads.

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