The common-law marriage between the Conservatives and the UUP in Northern Ireland – aka 'UCUNF' – has generated a lot of heat in political circles. That heat has been partially created by pro-Tory activists insisting that the new partnership is revolutionary, and partially by opponents of the UUP insisting that the partnership will fall at the first hurdle.
Nationalists, in the main, have been relatively silent on the issue. This may be because they see the realignments within unionism as mere reshufflings of the same pack of cards, or it may be because they quietly expect the intrusion of yet another unionist party to fracture and weaken unionism even more and thus do not wish to discourage it.
There is, however, a strong risk that the nationalist apathy vis-à-vis the Tory insurgency is misplaced, and that the move really will turn out to be a game-changer.
Despite the preference – strong for some and weaker for others – amongst nationalists for the political future of Northern Ireland to be framed in an all-Ireland context, there is undoubtedly a hunger (shared, to be fair, with a section of unionism) for politics to move beyond the zero-sum parochialism of Northern Irish politics. The English Tory party were the first to target this neglected market, but will not be the last – already Fianna Fáil is dipping its toe in the water, and other outsiders may also be eying up the possibilities. So far, though, none has set up as close a partnership as the Tories have done with the UUP.
So the hunger for non-parochial politics is being fed, for the moment, only by the Conservatives. Until other parties belatedly join the trend, the Tory monopoly on 'bigger picture' politics remains.
The apparent belief amongst nationalists that nothing has really changed carries enormous risks. The two nationalist parties are, despite Sinn Féin's participation in the south, essentially 6 County parties, with little wider significance. Neither will hold real power – in a sovereign government – in the near future. Both act as 'Catholic nationalist' parties, defending the very local and specific interests of their voters. While there is little wrong with that, it is more appropriate for district council politics, and limits the development with the two parties of serious political thought on wider issues.
Northern nationalism lacks a vehicle for political participation at a more serious level, and because of this it also lacks politicians and back-room staff who understand 'big picture' politics. Neither of the two nationalist parties will ever have to face issues such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, foreign policy, transport, energy or defence policy. On the economy they will never have any real power, and will simply spend the money that London sends them without having to worry about where it comes from, how it is generated, or what the opportunity costs are. This level of dependence and powerlessness reduces the role of nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland to that of local councillors.
Nationalism needs to recognise the threat that the Tories pose. Not just at policy level, but at the more practical level of political ambition and the yearning to play a part in the bigger world. If the only vehicle for such participation is a unionist vehicle, then nationalism may lose some of its weaker adherents to that vehicle. Already we have seen numerous defections to the Tories – largely from the UUP, the DUP and the Alliance Party – but it is not inconceivable that members of the SDLP may jump ship, simply for the opportunity of wider influence and wider political horizons. For the nationalist project, such defections would pose a genuine threat – although the Northern Irish electorate is on course for a Catholic majority within 20 years, the achievement of a nationalist majority is only possible if the vast majority of those Catholics vote nationalist, or if there is an inflow of Protestants (or others) sufficient to compensate for the Catholic outflow. The current balance amongst young people is around 55-60% Catholic, 40-45% Protestant, so if the Tories succeed in establishing a vehicle that attracts a significant number of Catholic conservatives (and, to be honest, many Catholics are already small-c conservative), then the balance may not tip in nationalism's favour.
Nationalism urgently needs to up its game. Dependence on the 'Catholic nationalist' vote is no longer good enough – it misses the opportunity of attracting non-Catholic votes, and it is too introverted to attract voters and activists who want to participate in the world outside the 6 Counties.
The Tory Party, though offering a window to British politics, remains nonetheless a narrow party, and offers its new recruits less than what they could aspire to. It remains a Eurosceptic party, and has marginalised itself within the European Parliament – while around 70% of new laws originate in Brussels! Those who claim that joining the Tory Party allows them "to be properly represented on important issues of state which are not devolved and affect us all eg economic policy, taxation, public spending, defence and foreign and constitutional issues" are seeing only part of the big picture. Joining a bigger party, which nonetheless excludes itself from full participation in the real centres of power, is a poor choice.
Nationalism has to offer more. It must offer ambitious and politically motivated people in Northern Ireland an opportunity to fully participate in politics at all levels, right up to European. As a sovereign state Ireland participates as an equal in all international bodies and organisations, and its influence and prestige is not insignificant. While Britain may retain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, this is of little importance in terms of people's daily lives – unlike Ireland's full and enthusiastic participation in European affairs.
Nationalism must broaden itself. The two small nationalist parties in the north must seek to join with, or be subsumed into, (Irish) national parties. Politically ambitious people in the north must be encouraged to play full parts in the politics of the nation, and to represent the nation abroad. But more than that – the national parties must broaden their appeal, so that they can attract support from those outside the traditional Catholic constituency of the SDLP and Sinn Féin. A larger, wider, more radical Labour Party or Socialist Party must be able to attract Protestant workers' votes; a centre-right populist party – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or a new party– must represent the interests of business people both north and south; and existing border-hazy parties like the Greens must be encouraged to become genuinely 32 County parties.
As long as nationalism defers to the border in its political organisations, it leaves the field wide open to parties like the Tories. The time has come to de-partition nationalist politics, and to move to genuine issues-based politics on an all-Ireland basis. If the parties themselves will not do it, then individual nationalists must take the lead. Domhnall O Cobhthaigh showed the way in Fermanagh, and individual members of Fianna Fáil have started to move in Down. But more is needed – a radical re-ordering of the political landscape is called for. The parties of the past, forever re-fighting old battles, must wither and die, to be replaced by new parties capable of attracting and retaining the support of all voters in Northern Ireland. These new parties must be non-sectarian and genuinely committed to representing all of the people of Northern Ireland – Protestant, Catholic, or other. They must be professional and committed, and should build upon the links that membership of the Socialist or Christian Democratic families would give them. In this way the power and influence of parties in a peripheral country can be multiplied many-fold in the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg.
If the politically ambitious can see a future for themselves in Irish politics, and through that in international politics, and if they can see that participation in Irish political organisations offers the possibility of effecting change in the lives of their voters and their communities, then the current threat from the Tory Party can be countered. Nationally-minded socialists, conservatives, greens, social democrats or liberals should be able to find political vehicles that offer them access to real power and influence within an Irish context. But if these opportunities are not available the risk remains that some will be tempted by the false promises of British parties, to the detriment of the nationalist ambition of reuniting our country.
This blog does not underestimate the threat posed by the Tory incursion intio Northern Ireland – hopefully others, and particularly the nationalist parties, will wake up to the threat before it is too late.