Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

A lesson in history for Cameron: unionists always do it their way

If I refer to the imbroglio of the UUP as ‘the Hermon mess', I hope Lady Hermon will not take it amiss.

She has, with what deliberation is not yet clear, become part of it; but she is not basically its cause.

Its roots, like so much in these parts, are grounded in the ancient, mouldy substrata of Ulster politics.

It seems she was inadequately consulted in advance on the tie-up with David Cameron’s Tories.

Now, on the brink of a General Election, the party finds itself in disarray and in open disagreement with the Tory leader, who may still be returned as the head of the largest party — and possibly Prime Minister. This is an unenviable position. It could have been avoided.

The UUP's problem is the obvious one that the old days are gone. Those UIster MPs drawn from among m' learned friends of Gray's Inn and the Athenaeum, and their gallant colleagues in the House, the peacetime soldiers, comfortably domiciled in the Home Counties, are long in the soil.

I recall one such who moved from there to a country house in Gloucestershire, the word in the Members' Bar being that he wished to be nearer his constituency. It was in Co Antrim.

But some of them held office in Tory governments. The Lords, too.

When the international temperature was rising in the early-1930s, the air |minister who encouraged the vital development of the Hurricane and Spitfire for the RAF was Lord Londonderry — previously the first minister of education in Northern Ireland. So there was a kind of integration in those early days — at the top.

But the journey on the overnight boat train from Euston to Stranraer, and thence to Larne, was long enough to preserve Westminster as a place remote from the voters.

Many Unionist MPs sat for safe seats through many parliaments and they could afford to ignore the fundamental: that their people in Ulster were not integrationist in temper at all, but, unevenly subsidised as they were, enjoyed paddling their own canoe.

Edward Carson eventually bowed to the same.

It is well-known that he resented the very existence of the devolved Government in Belfast which, shortly before his death, was to become Stormont; and which he regarded as a symbol of the failure of everything he, a Dubliner born and bred, had hoped to achieve for the Irish. So, after partition |in 1920, he refused his invitation to the opening of the first Parliament of Northern Ireland by |the King in Belfast City Hall, |retired to Kent and scarcely |set foot in Northern Ireland |afterwards.

His last visit was on a wet day in July 1933 to see the bronze |effigy of himself unveiled on the windswept plateau before the new Parliament Building opened |the year before by the Prince of Wales.

But the unionist people at home regarded Stormont as the badge of victory: oh, yes. Partition was much too serious a matter to be left to the British.

With their own show, the unionists felt safe.

But Carson knew the Stormont set-up was merely a device to keep the unruly statelet at arm's length in the thinly-disguised hope that union with it would soon be broken.

The depth of the unionist chagrin over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 confirmed how slowly the truth of Carson's prognosis dawned.

That agreement — giving Dublin governments a toe in the door for the first time — is important at this moment because it was a Tory Prime Minister, a |self-confessed unionist, who signed it.

One heard the old Arab adage quoted that it was better to be an enemy of the British because then they would buy you. If you were merely a friend, they would sell you.

To this day, the unionist people are to be heard referring to this territory as ‘this country'.

Of course, it is not a ‘country' in any sense — but the label is revealing of that historic detachment which lies at the heart of the current difficulty dividing the Ulster Unionist Party.

The post-electoral arithmetic will ultimately decide the fate of any formal Tory-Unionist link, if it survives as long.

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