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Tories had a lucky escape when UCUNF foundered

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Loyalist protestors carrying Union flags block the back of the City Hall in Belfast where councillors are debating whether or not to keep the flag flying at City Hall. Currently the flag is flown every day of the year at the building. Nationalist councillors want it removed as they argue that this would create a more equal and neutral environment. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 3, 2012. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Loyalist protestors carrying Union flags block the back of the City Hall in Belfast where councillors are debating whether or not to keep the flag flying at City Hall. Currently the flag is flown every day of the year at the building. Nationalist councillors want it removed as they argue that this would create a more equal and neutral environment. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 3, 2012. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire

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Loyalist protestors carrying Union flags block the back of the City Hall in Belfast where councillors are debating whether or not to keep the flag flying at City Hall. Currently the flag is flown every day of the year at the building. Nationalist councillors want it removed as they argue that this would create a more equal and neutral environment. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 3, 2012. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire

It has been a tough few days for Tory party chairman Grant Shapps. He has been caught up in a row about whether a senior colleague did, or did not, call Conservative grassroots members "mad, swivel-eyed loons".

With Ukip snapping at its heels and disquiet over gay marriage, the last thing the party needs is another row with its disgruntled activists – swivel-eyed, or not.

Perhaps a nice, relaxing trip to Northern Ireland will lift the Shapps spirits. I am told he will be in the province soon, visiting the small band of Tory activists.

One of the undoubted failures of David Cameron's period as leader of the Conservatives was the pact between his party and the UUP.

In 2008, he announced "a dynamic new political and electoral force, a new force to cement Northern Ireland's position as a peaceful, prosperous and confident part of our United Kingdom".

The clumsily-named Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force was not a success. At the 2010 general election, UCUNF won 15.2% of the vote and no seats.

The Tories rebranded as Conservatives NI. With one councillor and no Assembly seats, they are a minor player in a crowded field.

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The failure of UCUNF raises broader questions about politics in Northern Ireland. Why aren't the province's voters attracted by the main parties at Westminster?

Surely, there could be no clearer signal that Northern Ireland is truly emerging from the shadow of the Troubles than a new politics based on Right and Left, as opposed to Orange and Green. Yet Sinn Fein and the DUP continue to dominate. This puzzles Westminster politicians.

Recently, a senior Labour MP discussed the flag protests with me. He identified the underlying causes. Working-class communities, where manufacturing jobs have disappeared, a feeling that politicians are disengaged with those communities, the frustration borne of a lack of opportunities.

All of these factors are present in hundreds of poorer constituencies across Britain; the sort of places Labour draws much of its support. So why is Labour in Northern Ireland as much of a fringe party as the Conservatives?

The fact is Ed Miliband expects to be back in Government soon.

He and the party need to be seen as 'honest brokers' when dealing with Northern Ireland's often-complex political problems.

A senior Labour source pointed out that, if the party had councillors on Belfast City Council during the flags dispute, they would have had to take sides on the issue. That would have made it impossible to act as arbiters between the warring factions.

In retrospect, perhaps the Tories should be grateful UCUNF foundered.


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