Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Grey clouds gather over Tory blue sky thinking

The prospect of unionist MPs, of whatever hue, shoring up a Conservative government will play into the hands of dissidents, argues Henry McDonald

In the politically divisive, ideologically charged 1980s, there was only one part of the UK where the Tory-minded united with the Labour-minded: Northern Ireland.

'Minded' was the operative word because anyone back then who wanted to join or even vote for the two main British parties were denied that right in the province.

They were increasingly frustrated by the middle of that decade that they were continually denied membership of Labour and the Tories - and that both these parties refused to put up candidates here.

For a brief period between the mid to late-1980s, there was a fledgling movement to force the major UK parties to organise in Northern Ireland.

The Campaign for Equal Citizenship brought together hard-line Marxist-Leninists (some of whom were ex-Maoists) along with local Tory free marketeers.

Their combined aim was to persuade the leadership of Labour and the Conservatives to extend their membership to Northern Ireland and field candidates in the then 17 constituencies.

Although the pro-British Labour Left was the most energetic of the CEC campaign, it was the local Conservatives that appeared to achieve more.

Within a few years the Northern Ireland Tories were standing candidates in elections and recruiting many from the professional classes who had been alienated by the blatant sectarianism of the indigenous unionist parties.

Of course, the external conditions at the time did not favour the emergence of non-sectarian, 'national' politics to displace the established traditional unionist and nationalist blocs.

The Troubles were still raging and sectarian divisions were sharper than they are today: there seemed to be no space on the stage for any party - even those connected directly into national power - that tried to break the mould of Northern Irish politics.

Twenty years on and a number of young idealists resurrected the concept of UK national parties organising in Northern Ireland to offer voters a non-sectarian alternative. They included local PR expert Sheila Davidson and former BBC Top Gear producer Peter McCann.

The pair had one thing in common - apart from being supporters of David Cameron's new, caring sharing Conservative Party. They were Ulster Catholics and, in McCann's case, he came from Andersonstown in west Belfast.

The events of the last fortnight has broken that idealism, however, prompting three prospective Tory candidates to pull out of the race to be MPs in the forthcoming General Election.

They were frustrated over the lack of decision-making regarding their positions as candidates and also recent developments in relation to the Tory party, the Ulster Unionists and the DUP.

The talks at Hatfield House in south-west England last month have spooked local Tories. They have become increasingly alarmed over reports that the Tories - led by Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson- have been engaged in some pre-election deal with the two largest unionist parties.

The secular Tories' worries are two-fold. Firstly, that the Tory high command may be more interested in securing up to 12 unionist votes in the House of Commons if there is a hung parliament, or the Conservatives return from the General Election with a wafer-thin majority in May.

Their second concern is in relation to suspicions that the two main unionist parties may be even prepared to form a UUUC-style coalition in the event of the current power-sharing Government collapsing and that this would have the blessing of the Conservatives.

So, just as the idealism of the CEC campaigners withered in the toxic atmosphere of terrorism and sectarianism two decades ago, it now seems that a new generation of idealists have been fatally disillusioned by the tribalism of Ulster politics.

But the impact of the Tory-UUP-DUP discussions goes much wider than the handful of non-sectarian, secular Conservatives who have felt the need to walk away in disgust from local politics.

It has also enraged nationalists with accusations that the Tories are once again playing the so-called 'Orange card' - or even sacrificing cross-party consensus on the Irish peace process for a few votes in Westminster after May.

What is clear is that, if the Tories win, then as of now Owen Paterson will be the next Northern Ireland Secretary. And given recent events, how many nationalists will trust that the future Conservative Secretary of State can be a fair mediator between the two main political blocs?

While the latest opinion polls in the UK still point to an overall Cameron majority, the game is not over yet.

With an improving economy and Labour's increasing focus on the Tory leader's privileged background during the upcoming general election campaign, that lead may narrow.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Tories could eventually have to rely on the votes of smaller Westminster parties, such as the DUP and UUP.

Yet this scenario contains huge dangers for the peace process itself, with the echoes of the 'orange card' being played during the Home Rule Crisis or even the dying days of John Major's administration.

Moreover, the main benefactors of any outcome that has unionist MPs of whatever hue shoring up a benefit-slashing, public sector-cutting Conservative administration, will be the republican dissidents who tried to murder Constable Peadar Heffron, who will argue that unionism and the British establishment are still inextricably linked.

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