Friday 6 March 2009

NI Conservatives out of business, but who gains?

With the surprise resignation of NI Tory Jeffrey Peel from the Joint Committee set up to manage the UUP-Tory non-merger, the whole of Northern Irish Conservatism seems to be threatened.

Peel sent his resignation letter (aka political suicide note) to various outlets in order to ensure its wide dissemination. In it he pulled no punches, describing the UUP thus:

"I have come to the conclusion that the UUP does not have the interests of Conservatism at heart. Rather, as the UUP is facing a severe financial crisis, it sees the Conservatives as a means out of its financial and electoral woes. Many UUP members (although by no means all) still adopt a little Ulster mentality when it comes to politics, and the Party’s only MP is simply not a Conservative."

It is clear that under these circumstances Mr Peel cannot remain as Vice Chairman of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland as long as the partnership with the UUP continues. As he says, "I would encourage the Party to seek a mandate to govern every part of the United Kingdom without entering into deals with other political parties".

Jeffrey Peel is outspoken, but probably quite representative of a group of people who support broadly right-of-centre politics, Northern Ireland's place in the UK, and non-sectarian politics. That number is clearly small, judging by the Tories electoral failure in Northern Ireland, but it had hoped, via the link-up with the UUP to create a bigger and broader vehicle.

The fact that the Tory wheel has already started to fall off the wagon before it has even gone anywhere, is a poor sign for the non-merger. Where Peel has lead, others will follow, and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland will soon cease to exist in any significant way.

For the UUP this may not matter. Indeed they may relish it, as it would allow them to present themselves as the local branch of a UK-wide party, and to have access to the funding that this would give them. Perhaps the UUP engineered the split with the NI Tories with precisely this objective in mind.

But the wider issue, arguably more important to unionism, of broadening the appeal of the partnership to include people who do not see themselves as 'Ulster Unionists' will be lost. Taking finance from the Conservative Party in order to better fund a UUP candidate will not win any 'centre-ground' votes, or attract support from the mythical 'pro-union Catholics'. On the contrary, those who voted Conservative up to now did so in the certain knowledge that their votes were wasted (at all levels bar local councils) – yet they continued to do so. They consciously did not vote for the UUP, and will undoubtedly not decide now to vote for them. If they are now presented with 'Conservative and Unionist' candidates that are, to all extents and purposes UUP candidates, they may simply not vote at all, or vote for the Alliance Party.

So while the UUP may feel that it has won a victory over people like Jeffrey Peel, who they dislike because of his obvious dislike of their 'little Ulster' mentality, it may well prove to be a Pyrrhic victory which damages and divides unionism. Ultimately the winner is likely to be nationalism, as is so often the case when the unionists fight amongst themselves. The diminution of the local branch of the Conservative Party, and the strengthening of a regional and sectarian party can only weaken Northern Ireland's links with Britain – exactly the opposite of the originally declared intention of the non-merger.

As Peter Robinson nicely put it, "[the] UCUNF has inherited from the old UUP the capacity for forming circular firing squads".

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