Conservative and still Unionist – a Tory / DUP coalition?
The Conservative Party is making a serious bid for its first seat in the Stormont assembly. Historically, and until 1972 formally, the Party allied itself with the Ulster Unionist Party, as Labour did with the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Thus the Conservatives have been perceived to identify predominantly with the ‘moderate’ Protestant Loyalist cause, while Labour has identified itself with the ‘moderate’ Catholic Nationalism, both avoiding the ‘extreme’ Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. But the meltdown of the UUP, consequent defections to the Conservative Party, and the phenomenal rise of the DUP, have caused a reconsideration of strategy. Quite right too. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, and one cannot profess to be a Unionist party and then specifically exclude and alienate a constituent component of it.
But the UUP leader, Sir Reg Empey, challenged Mr Cameron to clarify the Conservative position. In Stormont, parties are required to register themselves as being either Unionist or Non-Aligned. Of course, the Conservative Party’s official name used to be The Conservative and Unionist Party, but with the advent of devolution, and out of sensitivity to Scottish Conservatives, the ‘unionist’ suffix has been quietly dropped from official documentation. As recently as 2003, a Party manifesto claimed 'we are a party of the Union', yet pledged that 'any Conservative elected to the assembly will refuse to play the sectarian headcount and will remain non-designated’.
The problem for Mr Cameron is that Unionism in Northern Ireland is not simply a political term; it is acutely religious, for it is synonymous with Protestantism. One can pretend otherwise, and insist that it is not a sectarian term, and point out that many Roman Catholics are Unionist (and they are), but the insistence that the term is not exclusive to any religious or ethnic group does not negate the reality that it predominantly is. In Northern Ireland, issues of monarchy, military, education, housing, justice, policing, and marching, are all viewed through the lens of religious identity.
Mr Cameron been to the Province now on three occasions, and he has appointed a member of the Party Board to oversee the development of his strategy for Ulster. The media is largely ignoring this, but his message is clear: the Conservative Party under him will engage in Northern Ireland, and any elected candidates will be Unionist. Of course, he aspires for a non-sectarian politics, and he states: ‘One of the reasons we are standing is to say to people in Northern Ireland politics doesn't have to be like this. It should be about the quality of your school, the quality of your hospitals, the choice you get in public services, supporting the rule of law, backing the free enterprise system. ’
Mr Cameron calls on the DUP to share power with Sinn Fein, because it’s what ‘the majority of people want’. Cranmer doubts that the Conservative leader has consulted the majority, and he rather thinks that his interest in matters Hibernian is rather more to do with the next General Election…
Consider, just for a moment, that the election of 2008/9 has been a tedious affair as Mr Cameron and Mr Brown have battled endlessly over the centre ground, each promising the same ends, with indiscernible differences in their means. As a result, the electorate decides that neither shall be victorious, and a hung parliament ensues. But while commentators and political pundits await news of the Tory-LibDem coalition they have long prophesied, Mr Cameron approaches the DUP for its 9 MPs to govern in coalition. A deal is done, and like a latter-day Moses, at the magnificent age of 82, the Rt Hon Rev Dr Iain Paisley enters the British Cabinet...