Tories respect our position within the United Kingdom
Critics of the Ulster Unionist/Tory link-up are effectively consigning Northern Ireland to second-class citizenship, argues Owen Polley
Shadow Secretary of State Owen Paterson has reacted with annoyance to Labour attacks on the Tories’ involvement in Northern Ireland politics.
His exasperation is understandable. The current Government took Britain to war in order to impose its favoured system of government on distant parts of the globe.
Yet Labour implies that the Conservatives have overstepped their mark by expressing an opinion on the system of devolution employed in a region of the United Kingdom.
The Government’s attacks, spearheaded by Peter Mandelson, have sparked an increasingly negative reaction to UCUNF in the national media.
The Times, which nominally backs the Conservatives, recently added a two-year-old quote from Paterson, voicing a preference for voluntary coalition in Northern Ireland, to the Hatfield Talks and, by some mysterious calculus, came up with a Tory plot to re-impose unionist majority rule at Stormont.
Of course, the Conservatives are planning nothing of the sort. Three out of the four main parties here have acknowledged that, eventually, voluntary coalition will be needed to deliver normal politics in Northern Ireland. Only Sinn Féin has been steadfast in its refusal to countenance any review of the power-sharing structures.
The Conservatives have repeatedly made it plain that any alterations will be entirely dependent upon the agreement of parties in Northern Ireland. They do, however, organise here and they are entitled to their opinions on how best to proceed — like everyone else.
While the Times reserved its disapproval for perceived meddling in structures established by the Good Friday Agreement, other sources have criticised David Cameron’s decision to express any support for Northern Ireland’s place within the Union at all.
The Guardian is a traditional media opponent of the Tories. Its editorial argued that Cameron is entitled to espouse unionism for Scotland and Wales, but never Ulster unionism.
Admittedly, the Hatfield House talks, hosted by Conservatives and purportedly touching upon the controversial topic of ‘unionist unity’, contributed to the current wave of anxiety. Particularly as they foreshadowed the umpteenth crisis at Stormont and yet another intervention in the ‘peace process’ by the Prime Minister.
The UK Government certainly needs to stand above zero-sum, cultural tugs-o’-war which attend issues like parading and the Irish language. However, to argue that it should not be permitted to select our representatives as ministers, or promote Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, is dangerous humbug.
The constitutional preference of a clear majority here remains membership of the United Kingdom and, unless that status is accompanied by political entitlements, taken for granted in the rest of Britain, then people in Northern Ireland are effectively being condemned to a form of second class citizenship.
To contend that power-sharing is too fragile to permit voters to choose their national government makes a nonsense of the principle of consent, which is supposed to underpin the Belfast Agreement. Whatever we might mean when we refer to the ‘peace process’ it is surely not supposed to prevent us playing a full role at Westminster.
The Conservatives are a unionist party and their unionism can and should extend to Northern Ireland. The important proviso is that it must be a unionism blind to differences of culture and religion.
As a party which believes in maintaining the United Kingdom’s integrity, the Conservatives are simply showing consistency by arguing that Northern Ireland’s position within it is valued and should continue. Co-operating with other unionists, whose politics are coloured by a similar hue, is, to quote David Cameron, a “no brainer”.
If a party genuinely believes in the inclusivity of British citizenship and in the merits of the UK, then it should be unafraid to promote their benefits across the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland. To his credit, David Cameron has shown he is willing to do just that.