Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Will Cameron prove to be the saviour of the Ulster Unionists?

Rallying cry - David Cameron could help to revive the fortunes of his UUP allies

General elections come at inopportune times for Northern Ireland. David Trimble needed an election in 2005 like Gordon Brown needs one now. The UU's were humiliated to the point where even Trimble lost his seat and only Lady Sylvia Hermon retained hers. Ever since, the UU's have sat in the back row of the orchestra, barely audible above the trumpets and trombones of the DUP.

But enter stage right, one David Cameron. His speech to the UU conference at the Ramada Hotel last October was brilliantly-crafted. It went a long way towards restoring the trust which Edward Heath destroyed in March 1972 when he suspended the old Unionist-dominated Stormont parliament. Now the Tories are back on new terms - supporting devolution across the UK and a 'pluralist' Ulster Unionist party.

Cameron's Ramada speech reminded unionists of Northern Ireland's contribution to the UK in times of war and peace. He wrapped the Union flag around the UU shoulders in a way that no Conservative leader had done since the Sixties, when the likes of Sir Alec Douglas Home and Harold MacMillan flew into Belfast and made a grand entrance on the stage of the Ulster Hall before the unionist establishment of the day.

The Cameron factor may stimulate a new interest in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The more he and the Conservative and Unionist New Force spell out their determination to keep Ulster British, the more they may arouse SDLP and Sinn Fein supporters from their slumbers to reopen debate on Irish unity.

Thankfully, Stormont today is fairly devoid of old-style unionist and nationalist rhetoric. The constitutional future seems sublimated in the minds of ministers and MLAs on all sides as they argue over more mundane matters.

Of course, we still have the usual ritualistic ramblings on Twelfth platforms, or over Wolfe Tone's grave at Bodenstown, or to mark another anniversary of the Easter Rising but, by and large, they wash over most of us.

One very good reason may be that a new financial reality is dawning on everyone, unionist and nationalist alike - namely that north and south is a desperate financial state, dependent on more handouts from Brussels and continued largesse from London.

If only because the Ulster Unionists were going nowhere fast, the idea of joining forces with the Tories is a good idea. It should give the UU's the upside of the full force of Conservative Central Office in the forthcoming election campaign as was the case in the 1960s before the C and U party split.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist party sticks to its own political ground. It refuses to back either Labour or Conservative horses. Where will that leave the DUP if the wrong horse - wearing true blue Tory colours - happens to pass the post first?

The DUP is saying clearly that it will not forge an alliance with any British party, Labour or Conservative, but try to work with whichever one wins.

If they are dealing with Prime Minister Cameron, that would seem to create more than a little local difficulty, especially if they have spent the forthcoming election campaign rubbishing his Conservative and Unionist New Force policy and candidates.

Whichever government takes power at Westminster is going to preside over draconian budgets which will savagely reduce public expenditure across the UK. Unless there is some exception made for Northern Ireland, it will suffer more than any other region because it is most dependent of all on job security in the public services.

The DUP, by refusing to be drawn into any links with the Tories or Labour, is positioning itself much like the Scottish Nationalists. This gives unionists a choice. Would you vote for a party which, like the SNP, refuses to be tied to whoever takes power in Downing St? Or would you go with the Conservative and Ulster Unionists?

I think voters should want to know the answer to another question before making up their minds. What benefits will the Tory link with the Ulster Unionists bring to Northern Ireland?

If the UUs are to regain any seats from the DUP, they will need to have a convincing economic strategy from David Cameron to sell to the local electorate. What will that be? There is much talk of creating an enterprise zone for the province or of reducing corporation tax to a level that might make the north more competitive with the south?

How can a Cameron cabinet deal with an economy which is so heavily dependent on the public purse of Northern Ireland without causing undue pain? How can he inject a new dynamic to replace the long-standing laissez-faire attitude of the civil and public services here? How can he make the north as entrepreneurial as the south?

Have Sir Reg Empey, Mr Cameron and his probable Secretary of State, Owen Paterson a viable and convincing economic plan to lay before us? If they can show that there is real benefit to Northern Ireland, in this new age of austerity, then they will win votes. That is a tall order. Northern Ireland will need a strikingly different policy to what has gone before and failed. The electorate need to know more soon. Over to you, Mr Cameron. It's your call. Heads you win. Tails - not you, but the Ulster Unionists stand to lose even more.

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