On the Slugger O'Toole political discussion website, a recent thread discussed a particular aspect of the link-up betwen the English Tories and the UUP - the desire by the Tories to demonstrate that they are 'above' Northern Ireland's tribal politics by selecting Catholic and female candidates. While the latter is a bit irrelevant since the men-only stranglehold on political positions has been breaking down quite fast in recent years, the lack of Catholics amongst the unionist parties has, if anything, been becoming more pronounced.
Unionists try, without much conviction, to claim that their parties are non-sectarian by pointing to the two recent Catholic members of the UUP - John Gorman in North Down, and Patricia Campbell in North Antrim. The problem is that Gorman is very old and retired from active politics (not dead, as I inadvertently assumed), and Campbell stood only once, in the 1998 Assembly election, failed to get elected, and has disappeared from politics. There are, basically, no known Catholic activists in any of the unionist parties!
So the Tories want to attract Catholic candidates, in the hope of thereby attracting Catholic votes. There is a persistant unionist belief that there are a large number of Catholic unionists who would vote unionist, presumably, if they had a Catholic to vote for. Why unionists think that Catholic unionists would be so sectarian is a mystery. If these mythical Catholic unionists exist, despite the Protestant tribalism of unionism, then why would they not vote for a Protestant?
Nonetheless, the Tories want Catholics. As Mick Fealty, owner of the Slugger O'Toole site, puts it:
"Their priorities? Women and Catholics. The former will come as no surprise. UUP party leader Reg Empey has previously acknowledged that his party must improve on its abysmal record of getting its women members into politics. But the latter will be met with some scepticism.
Yet they seem serious about their intent. They are even prepared for the likelihood that running a Catholic candidate will lose them votes in core Unionist constituencies, for the sake of establishing the principle. "
The discussion on Slugger O'Toole focussed unsurprisingly on the prospects of Catholic women becoming candidates, but this, I suspect, is a smokescreen. The Tories want Catholics and women, but not necessarily in the same package.
So, if there are no existing Catholic unionist activists waiting in the wings, the Tories will need to find some new blood. In order to prove that the new (Catholic) candidates are not just Uncle Tom Catholics dancing to the old UUP tune, they will have to demonstrate a clearly different approach, and be untainted by the sectarianism of the old UUP.
A prime candidate springs to mind. A Catholic from middle-class Holywood in North Down, who has spent much of his adult life in southern England, who has never joined a nationalist party or expressed a nationalist thought. An Irish speaker who has never said anything political in the language. A proven political animal who has cooperated closely with leading unionists (and nationalists) from all parties, who is slowly but surely becoming a household name through his many appearances in the print and broadcast media. A man known to senior Tories and unionists as a serious and dependable sort. A writer who has contributed to the re-thinking of the unionist project, and a blogger who scrupulously never criticises any political movement (though providing extensive space for those who do). A man whose support for unionism shines through his thin veneer of impartility.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your surprise Catholic Tory candidate for the next Westminster election:
Remember, you read it here first.