Tory alliance with UUP may fail to move beyond tribal allegiance


OPINION:DOES BRITISH Conservative party leader David Cameron know what he’s doing in Northern Ireland? asks FRANK MILLAR.

He is admirably clear as to what he intends to achieve in renewed alliance with the Ulster Unionists. Last July he and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Sir Reg Empey promised nothing less than “a new political and electoral force” moving beyond tribal allegiance in a cross-community appeal “to leave the past behind and join together to see a 21st century Northern Ireland in which every citizen is an equal citizen in the politics of the United Kingdom.”

Cameron, Empey and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson, may exaggerate support which exists for the purported new politics. Cameron will also be aware that the biggest question mark over the project comes in the form of some continued UUP resistance to the full merger of the two parties. If this “new force” really is to amount to something more than a re-run of their past relationship, it would seem necessary for the Ulster Unionists to embrace the ethnically inclusive Cameron brand.

That said, there is nothing remotely unworthy in offering citizens in Northern Ireland access to “mainstream” UK politics and greater participation in “national issues” not devolved to the Stormont Assembly. Some may be content to see Northern Ireland confined to a sectarian political backwater. But since when did a two-party state – and what SDLP leader Mark Durkan describes as the DUP/Sinn Féin “share out” of power – become the height of ambition for both communities there?

Certainly there is no necessary conflict between the Conservative/Unionist project and the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. Indeed, Cameron and Empey located this venture in the change embodied in those agreements originally negotiated by David (Lord) Trimble and Séamus Mallon and subsequently copper-fastened by the 2007 deal concluded by Gerry Adams and the Rev Ian Paisley.

Cameron will feel justified, then, in taking a fairly robust view of concerns whispered abroad by ministers and officials in London and Dublin. In his speech to the UUP conference in December Cameron addressed Irish anxieties directly – making clear that any government led by him would honour its international obligations (the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements). Mandarins in the Northern Ireland Office have been equally perplexed by Cameron’s assertion that he will promote the Union as a prime minister “for the whole of the United Kingdom”.

Civil servants tasked to talk to prospective Conservative ministers about their plans for government raise more than an eyebrow – asking if they are talking to the Conservatives or to “the Conservative and Ulster Unionist Party”.

In answer to London and Dublin, Cameron is clear, that the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements no more require a British prime minister to be “neutral” on the question of the Union than they require any taoiseach to be so on the issue of Irish unity.

That is fine as far as it goes. The reminder is necessary, however, that Cameron has himself placed this in the essential context of the new settlement on Northern Ireland in terms not just of powersharing but the wider North-South and British-Irish dimensions. In this context it is also right to acknowledge that British civil servants raising questions are not simply being pedantic. Some of them might happen to have a keener sense of underlying trends in unionist sentiment than might be apparent to Cameron or Paterson.

Paterson will be aware of an upcoming issue with the potential to test sorely the fledgling Conservative/UUP partnership.

The British government has tabled legislation allowing for the creation of a new Policing and Justice ministry at Stormont as a prelude to the eventual transfer of those powers. On past form, Empey’s party may want to oppose this measure, if only to embarrass First Minister Peter Robinson’s DUP. While hardly more enthusiastic himself, however, Paterson will find it difficult to resist government entreaties for “bipartisan” Conservative support for something integral to that agreement Cameron has pledged to honour and uphold.

Frank Millar is London Editor. Breda O’Brien is on leave