What would the Tories mean for Northern Ireland?

What would the Tories mean for Northern Ireland?
EDITORIAL (Alliance News)

September-October 2009

There are now probably only seven months to go before a General Election and the Tories are currently enjoying a comfortable poll lead. It is not certain that a Tory government will actually take power — those who think that David Cameron has “closed the deal” with the British public would do well to remember that after Party Conference season in 1991, it seemed certain that Labour would win the following General Election. However, it is more likely than not that David Cameron will be the next Prime Minister of the UK, so it seems an opportune moment to review what a Conservative government might mean for Northern Ireland and for the UK as a whole.

The striking point about the contemporary Conservative Party is how light on policy it is. Cameron’s own aides admit to how little substance is being produced by their own leader, sidestepping the questions raised by saying the upcoming election is about character rather than policy.

This lack of substance is disquieting in the middle of a serious economic crisis. One either liked or disliked Mrs Thatcher — and Alliance News had a long record of disapproving of her policies — but at least there were things she clearly believed in. Thatcher entered power with the aim of uprooting the postwar consensus in British politics — and she succeeded in implementing that aim, albeit with more ups and downs than are usually remembered today. Cameron on the ohter hand seems to have no great political principle other than the idea that he and his colleagues from the Bullingdon Club have a divine right to rule.

That begs the question of how a Tory government under an ideologically disinterested leader might govern. A point insuficiently made is the degree to which the Conservative Parliamentary Party has shifted to the right over the past generation. Thatcher’s agenda faced considerable opposition from within the Conservative Party. Although the Tories’ shift to the right arguably began as early as 1968, even the Conservative Party of the 1990s contained many “big beasts” on the Tory left — Patten, Clarke and Heseltine were all powerful figures within the party. Over the past three general elections, the “wets” have tended to retire and have been replaced by younger MPs from an identikit Thatcherite mould. Kenneth Clarke, the last of the wet grandees, is clearly head and shoulders above the callow George Osborne in ability, and should by rights be the current Shadow Chancellor, but is unacceptable to many Tory backbenchers.

To the degree that Cameron is a social liberal, this is largely a product of generational change — British society is vastly more liberal on issues like race, marriage and sexual orientation than it was a generation ago, and the Tory party is no more immune from that change than any other social group. But on issues of economics, Europe, social justice, law and order and Middle East policy, the Conservatives have moved sharply to the right. And following the agenda set by that now unchallenged right-wing consensus will provide the path of least resistance for any future Cameron premiership.

As far as Northern Ireland goes, the clumsily named electoral pact between the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (rejoicing in the snappy title of “UCUNF — Ulster’s Conservatives and Unionists: New Force”) has not exactly been shy in promoting itself as the saviour of Northern Ireland politics. Rhetoric is currently a long way short of reality.

There is an old Turkish folk saying: “If one sticks a silver saddle on a donkey, it is still a donkey.” And the Ulster Unionist Party remains the Ulster Unionist Party, even after a generous helping of Tory money, Tory election expertise and advice from metrosexual Tory spin-doctors. The UUP and the Tories were organically linked from 1906 until 1972 — this did not prevent the dreary, bigotry-laden, lost decades of Unionist misrule from Stormont nor did it prevent the outbreak of violence in the late 1960s.

If anything the UUP have tacked to the right, aiming to make hay from the DUP’s internal difficulties, since they announced their shiny new pact with the Tories in February. Reg Empey has stated publicly that in his book, no nationalist need apply for the post of Justice Minister. David McNarry thinks that BBC NI showing an all-Ireland GAA semi-final involving Tyrone is part of a devious popish plot to bring about a united Ireland. In South Belfast, the UUP are so obsessed with getting rid of Alasdair McDonnell that their membership is seeking a pact with the DUP; one that might get them out of supporting the Catholic already selected to fight the seat for the Tories. New force? We’ve heard these tribal drumbeats many times in the past.

If the UUP are determined to go back into their tribal box, at one level that is no problem for the Alliance Party. Alliance has always done well when the UUP has veered off to the extremes, and always done well when it has retreated into navel-gazing fratricide. Currently, it seems intent on doing both at once. If the UUP weren’t now organically linked to a Tory party potentially in power within the year, the antics of the UUP would be music to Alliance ears.

However, the Tory-UUP deal was predicated on the idea that 2007 marked the end of history for Northern Ireland, that there would be no further need of crisis interventions by British Secretaries of State. This year has shown much work still to be done to make this a normal democracy: the Sinn Féin-DUP coalition is still extremely fragile; Jim Allister’s siren voice still calls from the wings as, tragically, do the guns and bombs of dissident Republicanism. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that a future Secretary of State will once again need to take an active, direct, role in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and may once again have to try and hold the ring between the political parties here. It is difficult to see how that can be done by a Secretary of State organically linked with a UUP intent on undermining the current political settlement for cheap kicks.

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