In July, amid a small storm of publicity, the leaders of the British Conservative Party and Northern Ireland's tired old Ulster Unionist Party announced that "the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have held a series of discussions to consider matters of mutual concern and interest. As leaders we met at Westminster last week and agreed to set up a joint working group to explore the possibilities of a closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland".
Whether this "closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force" was a merger, or a take-over, was hotly debated by political commentators and the UUP's opponents since the announcement. At times the UUP spun the story one way, and at times it spun it the opposite way. The Tories put their foot squarely into their mouths when they announced that they would "fight for every seat in the UK, including Northern Ireland, at the next General Election". They thus painted themselves into a corner of their own making – either the 'merger' with the UUP must have taken effect by the next Westminster election (which could be in the spring of 2009), or else the Tories will have to stand against their erstwhile partners in the UUP.
Meanwhile, though, the UUP have not stood still. In Limavady they showed that their old tribal bigotry was still alive by indirectly endorsing the thuggery of the loyalist paramilitaries against a Presbyterian Minister who dared to extend the hand of friendship to Catholics. Cameron's party quietly ignored that small indication of the type of people they were hoping to join up with.
But when Reg Empey, leader of the UUP, met Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, in October and agreed an electoral pact (which he subsequently denied) with his party, the full extent of David Cameron's foolishness became obvious.
For once the DUP were the party that described the story best. Edwin Poots, never previously renowned for his rhetorical skills, put it thus, describing Empey as an "unfaithful political bedfellow":
"Those who have watched the sad spectacle of Reg Empey attempting to hatch another political wedding will have done so with more than a little bemusement. In the short term of Sir Reg’s leadership, the Ulster Unionists have tried three separate political match-ups. Firstly they proposed marriage to the PUP only to be told such a marriage would be illegal under Assembly rules, then they launched an attempt to woo the Tories and whilst the wedding arrangements were being put in place for that magical union to save the UUP, Sir Reg’s roving eye seems to have settled on the TUV. What an unfaithful political bed-fellow the UUP really has become!"
"One day Sir Reg is portraying himself as the champion of moderate secular Unionism – a Cunningham House Cameroonie - whilst the next day he is sidling up to the far-right fringe of the political spectrum in the form of the TUV. One wonders also what the Ulster Unionists potential bride in the Tories thinks of that party’s act of infidelity with the TUV."
Whatever the story says about Empey and his declining party, the sorry episode also reflects poorly on the judgement of the British Tory Party.
Firstly, because they allowed themselves to be persuaded to suggest a 'close friendship' (aka merger, according to the initial spin) with a party that turned out to be an unreformed group of sectarian tribal warriors.
Secondly, because it demonstrated that their haste to present themselves as a 'British' party overtook their common sense. Had they not done any research on the UUP? Did they really think that the unpleasant attitudes shown by numerous unionists over recent years were just going to disappear?
Thirdly, because they demonstrated a total lack of faith in their own brand. The Conservative Party already exists in Northern Ireland. True, it gets only a derisory proportion of the vote, but if the Tories actually felt that their brand was worth promoting, then why did they not simply promote it? If British conservatism was something that they felt Northern Irish voters would vote for, then why not stand as Conservatives and see? What a clear sign of their belief in their own weakness that they did not simply invest resources in their own organisation in Northern Ireland, and proudly stand, for secular conservatism, against the religious tribal unionist parties.
Even a small amount of research would have shown the Tories that the UUP is a party in decline – possibly terminal decline. The political space that a secular conservative party could fill is, in theory, expanding. If the Tories felt that there were Catholics amenable to its message, then a strong campaign aimed at them would have been better than trying to merge with the old party of the Orange Order and the disgraced Stormont Regime.
The sad reality, of course, is that that space does not exist. The Tories have been trying for years to get established in Northern Ireland, and failing. In the 2005 Westminster election they received 2,718 votes (0.4% of the total). In the 2005 local elections it was even worse; 1,164 votes (0.2% of the total). Their message simply doesn't sell in Northern Ireland, either amongst unionists, who prefer the certainties of their tribal parties, or amongst the mythical 'Catholic unionists' who may simply not exist.
By trying to link up with the UUP the Tories have made fools both of the UUP and themselves. It calls into question the judgement of David Cameron.