Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ulster Unionism.. at last?

In the topsy-turvy paradox that is Northern Irish politics we have constitutional republicans (in the wider European sense) that are called 'nationalists' (the SDLP), nationalists pretending to be republicans (Sinn Fein) and, most strangely, 'unionists' (the DUP) who possess arguably the strongest sort of nationalism on the island- Ulster Nationalism. This point is demonstrated most clearly in recent weeks by Iris Robinson's comments regarding homosexuality and her attack on secularism. Iris's political development seems not to have embraced any Enlightenment thinking whatsoever and is stuck solidly before the epoch-making French Revolution of 1789- maybe stuck even as far back as 1690! Her views and those of the DUP have no place whatsoever in modern Britain except on the fringes and underline just how different the development is of one small part of the Union when compared to the rest.

The DUP, and large swathes of the UUP it must be said, represent the "Our wee Province" view of the North, and one which is anathema to their stated goal of preserving the Union. One of the Carsonite arguments for exclusion from Home Rule was cultural and religious, and maybe they had a point when you looked at he domination of the Catholic Church in the South, but conservative unionism has arguable more in common now with the social conservatism of FF and FG in the Republic than it does with Labour, the Lib Dems and the liberal wing of Cameron's Tory Party in the rest of the UK.

It is the above point that makes tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph article, jointly authored by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey, all the more interesting. Does this signal, for the first time in decades, a willingness for NI's unionists to embrace the political culture- and with it to a certain degree the wider social and cultural norms- of the rest of the United Kingdom? The UUP/Tory relationship could signal a move from what has been mere symbolic support in the past to the kind of alliance the parties had circa 1913 when Andrew Bonar Law was the Tory leader and NI was thrust into the centre stage of British politics. Although NI's influence then was determined as much by the state of the parties in Parliament, the IPP's relationship with the Liberals and the need to find a solution to the Home Rule Crisis than by the political link between Carson and Bonar Law, a political link between the UUP and Cameron's Conservatives could have the effect of ending the Ulstercentricity of contemporary Unionism and forcing it to adapt to change, which would undoubtedly strengthen the Union. It is, arguably, the logical conclusion to Ulster Unionism as an ideology.

This move has implications not only for Unionism but for Nationalism/Republicanism and the Assembly too. The Tories established in NI would upset the Good Friday apple-cart much in the way FF coming north would. It remains to be seen how the mandatory coalition model which works on the presumption of the current NI political status quo would adapt to a shifting political state. Politics is in both a state of stagnation in Stormont and of flux elsewhere. Interesting times indeed.


New Yorker said...

From the Tory perspective, one reason this is attractive is that it would add to their vote count in the Westminster election in a year or two. From the UUP perspective, tapping into the resources of a major UK party brings expertise, joining a sizable group at Westminster and possibly in a cabinet plus other benefits.

There is an opportunity for SDLP to explore a similar alliance with UK Labour. It would offer the same or more attractions and benefits to both SDLP and UK Labour. SDLP is the only Northern party UK Labour would have anything to do with. It would put FF on notice that SDLP has more than one suitor. Under current constitutional arrangements more weight at Westminster and possible Cabinet positions should be a prime consideration.

Pierre Brasfort said...

The difference is that the UUP-Conservatives share many common policies, whereas the politics of British Labour have changed dramatically from other Labour parties and the SDLP would never give up their own whip to be forced into supporting things like the war in Iraq, 42 day detention, and abortion. And most importantly, the SDLP has been a United Ireland party since it's foundation, and they can achieve their aims better by aligning with another Irish party and most definitely without British Labour.

nineteensixtyseven said...

A SDLP-BLP link would be suicidal for the SDLP because of how unpopular the New Labour project has become, the shoddy way the British government has treated the SDLP and, mainly, because the SDLP are a United Ireland party not pro-British.

New Yorker said...

A united Ireland is not in the near future, it is an aspiration. The reality is that important matters concerning the North are decided at Westminster. While waiting for a united Ireland it would be smart to have as much heft as possible in London and have some effect on the united Ireland issue. There are really only two major parties at Westminster. I agree that some recent Labour policies are odious but on balance Labour is better than the Tories.

If Labour were to make a counter move to the Tories in the North, who would they want to speak with?

The Northern Irish parties are small and some without many resources and a large party with knowhow and wherewithal would be a benefit.

nineteensixtyseven said...

The electorate would crucify us and the party would split in a million directions. Sad but true.