Is the party really over for Lady Hermon and the UUP?
Lady Sylvia Hermon’s refusal to endorse the Ulster Unionists’ tie-up with the Tories was predictable argues David C Shiels of the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies. But the question now is — what future does the parties’ alliance have?
Published 15/05/2009 | 12:11
Lady Hermon has spoken. By declaring that it is “highly unlikely” that she could stand under a Conservative banner the Ulster Unionists' sole MP has confirmed suspicions that she opposes the Conservative and Unionist alliance.
There is no doubt that this is a major blow to the ‘New Force'.
As one of the few women involved in Northern Ireland's politics, Lady Hermon is a respected constituency MP who has won the support of moderates within her own constituency and further afield.
In short, she is exactly the type of candidate the Conservatives need to have.
There have, however, been a number of factors which have long made it unlikely that she would come out in favour of the alliance.
As her voting record in the House demonstrates, Lady Hermon is uncomfortable with many aspects of Conservative Party policy — she has more in common with the Labour Party.
The other problem is her relationship with her own party. As Lady Hermon made clear on Wednesday, she has felt isolated at Westminster and does not think her party has given her much support, especially in light of her difficult personal circumstances.
Her party colleagues deny the rumours that the negotiations with the Tories were conducted without her full knowledge and support, but if the rumours are true this is a serious failing on the part of the new alliance.
The problem that Lady Hermon now faces is how to deal with the inevitable backlash against her.
Sir Reg Empey has declared his disappointment at Lady Hermon's decision and it is easy to see why he and his colleagues are angry.
Although she has long been thought to be a Labour sympathiser, it is apparently not for reasons of high ideology that she has chosen to intervene now.
Her complaints about being kept out of the loop are unlikely to win her sympathy. Being the sole MP may have been a lonely job but also gave her a special responsibility towards her party.
She surely had a duty to make her views known before now, she could have made it her business to lead the opposition to the deal.
During the early stages of the negotiations, when many grassroots unionists were sceptical about the deal, she would have had a powerful case against it.
Even now, though, it is still not clear why precisely Lady Hermon objects to her party's decision.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed, she had a number of meetings with senior Conservative MPs but was afterwards left with the impression that they did not really understand Northern Ireland (do Labour MPs understand it any better?).
Paradoxically, this is precisely the problem that the alliance between the parties is supposed to address.
Supporters of the project recognise that Northern Ireland has long been isolated from mainstream British politics and that it has for too long been seen as a ‘place apart'.
Sir Reg Empey's ambition is not just that future Ulster Unionist MPs could sit in Government but that he and his colleagues can, even now, begin to engage with the Conservative Party on all matters relating to Northern Ireland.
The big question, though, is what happens next? If Jim Nicholson does badly at the European election much of the blame will be pinned on this intervention.
Unfortunately, it seems increasingly likely that this saga will end with Lady Hermon exiting the Ulster Unionist Party.
This will be a sorry moment for the party.
Although there is a slight danger that her emotional performance on Wednesday (particularly in relation to the expenses claims) might work against her, she still retains the affection of her constituents and of a broader cross-section of people in Northern Ireland.
The Alliance Party, seeking to remain the voice of moderate opinion in Northern Ireland — and no doubt hoping to gain an MP — has been sympathetic to her cause.
The DUP, until now hostile to Lady Hermon, may see a chance to humiliate the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists.
But the feeling among Conservatives and Ulster Unionists is that the project must proceed regardless. If Lady Hermon chooses to stand as an independent or under some other ticket in North Down at the next election, it seems inevitable that the New Force will run against her, perhaps with some big ‘name' on the ballot paper.
It would be strange to imagine the battle between ‘little Ulsterism' and British Unionism being fought with Lady Hermon on one side and her old colleagues, including her mentor Lord Trimble, on the other.
We can be sure, though, that this week's announcement has the potential to transform the political landscape once more.