The leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party and the British Conservative Party have announced that they are to "explore the possibilities of closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland." Without actually stating that the two parties are to merge, the text of the announcement makes this the obvious conclusion.
The joint statement gushes with enthusiasm for the possibility that the new formation will give "all the people of Northern Ireland a means of becoming involved in the politics of the UK", and will be a clear signal "that Northern Ireland was moving on and becoming a ‘normal’ part of the UK … ".
Such a merger between a very minor provincial party with one MP and the resurgent 'government in waiting' looks quite one-sided. Clearly the Tories are keen to be seen to be more than just an English party, but what does this move promise for the UUP?
The statement hints at the UUP's hopes:
"The Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party want the support of all those who share our joint agenda and common vision, regardless of their religion, background, or whatever part of the UK they happen to reside in.
There are too many in Northern Ireland who have been put off playing any role (including voting) in politics by the vicious sectarian divisions of recent years."
The UUP still appears to believe that there are large numbers of 'garden-centre Prods' who can be brought back to the voting booths. In addition, they are still chasing the Holy Grail of unionism – the Catholic unionist. They know that the 'sectarian headcount' nature of Northern Irish politics is one that they are destined to lose, and many individual voices have been calling (usually in vain) for the UUP to 'de-sectarianise' itself in order to attract the potential Catholic votes it believes to be out there. As the UUP, it has always failed to do this. For every voice calling for a non-sectarian 'party of the union' there were ten or a hundred UUP members and politicians who could be counted on to say or do something clearly sectarian, and thus negate the effort. Now, it seems, the UUP think that by hitching their wagon to the Tories, they will miraculously become the non-sectarian party of (some of) their dreams. However, a change of name cannot in itself change the nature of the party. The UUP may start to call itself 'The Conservative Party', but it will have the same members, with the same attitudes and the same history as before. The party's Orange Order members will remain bigots and the petty sectarian attitudes of many others will not be removed by a brand makeover. The underlying hatreds of Northern Irish society will not be washed away overnight. What will become of the UUP members who have, over decades, conspired with the DUP to deny nationalists seats just because they were nationalists? What of those who shared platforms with loyalists, or voted for the PUP while the UVF was still actively murdering Catholics? What of the thousands of small-minded anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist, actions that the UUP's members are still remembered for?
The UUP has an irrational belief in the cathartic effect of a name-change. But while its senior members may feel close to the Tories, what of the rank and file? What of working-class unionists? Will they meekly vote for a right-wing party? Or, more likely, will they migrate en masse to the DUP?
The UUP is clinging to the Tories like a drowning man clings to a raft. It makes them feel safe, as if the support of a large party will shelter them from the electoral death that was almost certainly theirs. However, their interest in the Tories is subtly different from the Tories interest in them. For the UUP, the Tories are first and foremost a unionist party – the joint statement makes no reference to commonality of policy on other issues, it merely boasts that the merger will allow Northern Ireland to 'take part in all the national debates' and to 'be properly represented in the corridors of power'. The important policy commonality for the UUP is that of "shared values of support for the Union". It seems that other areas of policy – economic, social, educational, and international – are irrelevant. As long as the Tories support 'the union' the UUP will provide them with lobby-fodder in Westminster. The hopeful phrases about Northern Irish UUP/Tories having "the real prospect of assuming office as ministers in the government of the day at Westminster" is hugely unrealistic, but designed to make ambitious UUP members salivate.
The merger opens up a clear split between the two main unionist parties. By hitching their wagon to the Tories, the UUP are essentially returning to the integrationist policies of the Molyneaux era. The DUP, by contrast, are becoming more obviously 'Ulster-nationalist' and devolutionist. The DUP have no partners in Westminster (and thanks to Iris Robinson's anti-gay bigotry, probably never will) – they are a strictly Northern Irish party. The UUP seem to have turned their back on the devolution that their own party helped to create, in the expectation that a Tory win in the next Westminster election will exert a centripetal force, countering the centrifugal effects of the Labour government's experiments in devolution. If the UUP-Tory merger goes ahead, Northern Ireland will be faced with three different constitutional options: UK integrationism, devolution, and Irish nationalism.
The tone of the joint statement is carefully designed to promote one of unionism's myths – that the Good Friday Agreement represented the surrender of Irish nationalism, and the copper-fastening of the border. The statement talks as if Catholics have given up any hope of re-uniting Ireland, and are only waiting for a suitable way to integrate themselves into the "the mainstream of UK politics". Nowhere is any reference made to the fact that a large proportion of the people are Irish by culture, identity and legal status. No reference is made to cross-border policies or activities. The joint statement treats the border as of it were hermetically sealed and northern nationalists are locked forever, and without hope or expectation of eventual release, within the UK. This has been a unionist dream since the very start of partition, and while it may appeal to unionists in North Down or Antrim, it is incomprehensible to nationalists in Newry, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, south Armagh, and other areas where the south is just a continuation and extension of their normal lives.
So what will become of the UUP-Tory merger? It will probably be a minor success among middle-class unionists in the greater Belfast region. They will win some Council seats in 2011, and probably retain Sylvia Hermon's Westminster seat in North Down in 2010. But the strains will start to show when faced with tribal rivalries – what position, for instance, with the UUP/Tories take in Fermanagh-South Tyrone? Will they 'stand aside' in tribal solidarity with the DUP, or will they fight the seat as a 'new force'? There are many such hazards ahead, and it is clear that the UUP/Tories will fail at some of them, and its shiny new image may start to show its real colours. In the short term, though, it is likely that tribal unionist voters – the majority outside greater Belfast – will probably turn to the DUP as their true saviours. Within the Belfast Pale the UUP/Tories will have to fight the Alliance Party for votes, and while they may take votes from Alliance, the overall unionist share of the cake will continue to shrink. On the other hand, UUP members who are not natural Tories (the last remaining 'liberal unionists') may in fact go over to Alliance, so the effect may be limited.
Unionists in general are usually attracted to the thought of British parties establishing themselves in Northern Ireland. They see the growth of such 'third force' groups as having the possibility to take support from both unionism and nationalism – but being British, the 'third forces' would, by definition, be small-u unionist. Such moves are welcomed by unionists as a way of getting Catholics to vote for unionism. But they have never worked. What usually happens is that an enthusiastic group of people (mostly ex-unionist) vote for them, but they quickly decline into insignificance. The last attempt by the British Tories to establish themselves in Northern Ireland went exactly that way. Will this attempt be any more successful? Probably not – the UUP may re-brand themselves, but they will remain what they are, and who they are, and if the Tories get their expected majority in Westminster in 2010, the little UUP with its one seat will be a irrelevance to them.