A partnership with ambiguous benefits

THE CONSERVATIVES and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) habve struck an electoral agreement which Iain Dale is very excited and optimistic about.

Optimism is good, especially in Northern Ireland. But I have two points to make, the first of which may risk denting his optimism.

Iain says this agreement is “a sign that the Good Friday Agreement is succeeding and a further sign that sectarian politics is on the wane.” If only. I strongly suspect that this agreement, such as it is, is more about the utter failure of the Tories to make any headway at all in the province since its decision in the 1980s to stand candidates.

And how can an alliance between the British Conservative Party and the protestant UUP reach out to Catholic voters in Northern Ireland. Those who might have considered voting Tory before now in an attempt to break the hold of sectarian parties will now be discouraged from doing so, since a vote for them now will be (rightly) interpreted as a vote for the UUP, the party that ruled Northern Ireland with an impregnable majority for 50 years and institutionalised anti-Catholicism in that time.

Secondly, the UUP for many years accepted the Tory whip at Westminster, a practice that was resurrected under David Trimble’s leadership (but not with the unalloyed enthusiasm of all his MPs). So this agreement is simply an modest extension to the partnership. I’m not entirely sure whether the UUP still take the Tory whip, but since it only has one MP these days, it wouldn’t make much difference.

Do the Tories hope that, in the event of a hung parliament, even a modest increase in Tory-supporting Unionists might be crucial? 

Interestingly, and tellingly, while the UUP governed in Northern Ireland, they continued to send MPs to Westminster, MPs who not only took the Tory whip but also voted on policies which were devolved to Northern Ireland. Oddly, the Tories never objected at the time, and no Tories, to my knowledge, have since admitted that such a practice was anything other than democratic.

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16 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Conservative Party, Parliament

16 responses to “A partnership with ambiguous benefits

  1. Interesting. I was wondering if you would care to comment on an whether or not a deal was struck by the Labour government and the DUP (unDemocratic Unionist Party) on 42 days?

  2. It does seem like a marriage of convenience, and one where the convenience might evaporate with one bad election.

    But here’s a question: could this be a model for the Scottish Tories? If bringing the UUP closer actually works and provides a viable way of doing things, could we actually see Annabel Goldie and David Mundell de-coupled from the rest of the Tory Party?

  3. Steven

    ‘…how can an alliance between the British Conservative Party and the protestant UUP reach out to Catholic voters in Northern Ireland.’

    This gets to the heart of things: UUP is not a protestant party, it is a unionist party. There is a difference that must be recognised. At least one of its former assembly members was a catholic and there have always been many catholic unionists in Northern Ireland.

    If this move helps to untangle the unseemly, sectarian axis whereby protestant = unionist; and catholic = nationalist, precisely by decoupling religion from politics in a modern, pluralistic context, then it’ll be worth it for that alone.

  4. Steven, I agree to a certain extent, but like it or not, the UUP is still perceived as a protestant party, whatever the reality, just as the SDLP claim not to be a Catholic party but are nevertheless perceived as such. I fear that allying a non-sectarian party like the Tories with the UUP might have the opposite effect from what you’re predicting.

  5. Johnny Norfolk

    It always used to be
    ” The conservative and Unionist Party”.

    So this is nothing new just old friends getting back together, and I am very pleased.

    It is all good news if it strengthens opposition to the left.

    I suppose this is the bottom line on why you are concerned Tom.

  6. Tom, can you please answer my question on why the DUP aligned itself with Labour over the issue of 42 days? Was a deal struck?

  7. Elvis – why on earth do you think that I would have been privy to any deals struck in the run-up to any votes in the Commons?

  8. Frances

    “Secondly, the UUP for many years accepted the Tory whip at Manchester”

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you mean ‘at Westminster’. I had to think about that for a second – I mean, what use would it have been if they accepted the Tory whip but only when they happened to be in Manchester?

  9. Frances – yeah, I’m not sure why I wrote Manchester either! Sorted now. Sorry about that. But I’m sure there was an announcement during the 2001 parliament that the UUP would accept the Tory whip.

  10. Frances

    By the way, I’m also pretty sure you’re wrong about the UUP accepting the Tory whip under David Trimble. There was certainly an informal understanding with the Tories, but it was nothing remotely like the pre-Sunningdale arrangement.

    Trimble used to justify his backing of John Major’s government by saying it was the practice of the UUP to support the government of the day in any confidence vote unless there was good reason not to – in other words, they could do whatever they liked to maximise their own tactical advantage. And, to be fair to him, in spite of his Conservative leanings, he was true to his word and seemed quite enthusiastic about the Blair government in the early days.

    Come to think of it, that was probably precisely because of his Conservative leanings.

  11. john wilkie

    as a catholic and in favour of the union, I welcome the joining of the UUP and the tories – when are labour ging to offer the people of NI a chance to participate in British politics?

  12. In regards the “North Belfast question”, it’s often forgotten that during the Stormont years Northern Ireland had significantly fewer MPs per voters than the rest of the UK – the “reduced representation, a say on everything” option avoided the minefield of differing majorities for different issues and seems to have kept nearly everyone happy.

  13. Steven

    ‘I fear that allying a non-sectarian party like the Tories with the UUP might have the opposite effect from what you’re predicting.’

    I’m sorry, I think that’s just a cynical reflection of Labour tendencies to filter everything through the prism of Tory-bashing advantage.

  14. Tom, is it still true that the Labour Party bans residents of Northern Ireland from membership in a unique form of political discrimination?

    How can you then complain about the Tories building a partnership with a local unionist party when you don’t provide voters with a non-sectarian alternative?

  15. “… is it still true that the Labour Party bans residents of Northern Ireland from membership in a unique form of political discrimination?”

    No.

  16. But there are no constituency Labour parties for them to join, right? So what’s the point?

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