Saturday 6 December 2008

Floating above history in Ulster

David Cameron’s speech to the UUP today offers an uncannily Blairesque floating above history. That is the problem of the speech, and yet it could form part of its attraction too. For whatever the many evident flaws of such an approach, the nagging suspicion remains that an escape from history could just, one day at least, be what politics in Northern Ireland needs.

The argument for politics in Northern Ireland having much more to say about public spending, education, health and the mundane, quotidien stuff of democratic politics is certainly a good one. But how to get there?

In principle, the idea that the mainstream British parties should offer Northern Ireland citizens the chances to participate in politics that the rest of us have seems an attractive.

But there have been at least two significant barriers. One has been principled: the risk of destabilising progress towards a secure political settlement. Whatever the stops, starts and Stormont politicking, it may not be too optimistic to think that this has diminished in importance, and should do so further. (And open alliances of this sort might prove no more, and perhaps less, problematic than horse-trading in tight parliamentary situations).

The other has been rather more tactical: even were the main three parties to put up candidates, the chances of their breaking the stranglehold of the local parties has appeared slight (as previous recent Tory experience has shown).

Cameron feels the decline of the UUP has offered a new political opportunity for the Tories. The details of this new political force are very much still at the drawing board. But this is unlikely to ‘break the mould’ of Ulster politics if that is best judged by whether cross-community voting on political and ideological grounds normal. This is unlikely to do that, and it is difficult to see how any one of the UK parties could achieve that if their rivals were not also present. Cameron’s move could increase local pressure on Labour to organise in Northern Ireland, but few think the party would make much impact if it were to stand. (And mirroring the Tory move through deeper links with Labour’s sister party, the SDLP, would entrench rather than challenge a community-based census as the primary political dividing line).

The worst line in Cameron’s speech was his assertion that:

It's in my own selfish interests, too

He wanted to make the perfectly decent point that he wanted a government open to talent from Northern Ireland, as from anywhere else. But Cameron surely intended the allusion, which everybody in his audience will have recognised, to Peter Brooke’s historic statement that “Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. That seems to me a strange, and somewhat shallow, decision.

Brooke’s statement that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom simply on the basis of consent maintained the Union, yet paved the way for Britain to act – alongside the Irish and US governments – as an honest broker in securing a political settlement

The very modern Cameron Tories appear to be returning to the simple integrationist and sovereigntyist propositions put by Enoch Powell – that North Down was as British as Wolverhampton or Guildford, no more and no less, and that the interference of foreign powers should be as unthinkable there as anywhere else in the Union. Cameron’s reference to “nearest neighbours” may also have been a nod in this direction. (Perhaps this all cheers up his Eurosceptics, though it perhaps shows an unusual set of strategic priorities to be trying divorcing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy’s parties in the European Parliament while getting engaged to Sir Reg Empey in Belfast).

But the most unusual and counter-intuitive aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was her recognition that this was not true in the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1986. Everywhere else, she made a simple argument about the superiority of British values and the unique virtures of Westminster model. And yet she could acknowledge that, in Northern Ireland, those rules could not apply.

If the mass resignation of Unionist MPs to fight protest by-elections against the Thatcher government marked the low point of the Conservative and Unionist relationship, was that not a far sighted and necessary ‘betrayal’? Ultimately, the protest was against the approach which, through 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, sought to bring peace and a political settlement to Northern Ireland.

David Cameron floats above this history. I am sure he would recognise and acknowlege, if asked, the enormous efforts which both John Major and Tony Blair made in Northern Ireland. Still, with a nod and a wink, he signals his desire to reject – or at least rewrite – those foundations which now make his voicing of simple Unionist homilies possible.

How much does that matter? Perhaps it does not. Indeed, an alternative view could be that this was always a major part of the point of the process: to make it possible to move on, if not quite so recklessly to forget.

Few can confidently predict how much impact the Tory move will have. The Conservatives will be pleased with the mood music it sets on the mainland, though that does not rule out their motivation in Northern Ireland being sincere too.

Perhaps Cameron’s move could yet change politics in Northern Ireland, even if the odds and history seem against it. And perhaps the attempt to challenge political history with this claim for 'normal politics' is no bad thing.

But Northern Ireland is still Northern Ireland. Change may come, but it will likely come dropping slow.


NI Fabian said...


I am a NI Fabian who attended the UUP Conf.

First of all, Cameron actually said "selfish and strategic interests" - not just "selfish" as suggested by his written speech. There was quite a stir when he said this as it was a clear statement of change in policy.

He was unambiguously aligning the Tory Party with unionism. There was no movement away from the pattern of sectarianism.

The Left has a responsibility here to challenge the orthodoxies of the rival nationalisms, but it cannot do so by abandoning the field of politics to those parties who feed on division.

Robert Alcock said...

The Labour Party’s stance on organising in NI is stuck in a curious half-way house. Since 2003, people from Ulster have been able to join the Party – but an internal ban on standing election candidates there remains. An attempt by two CLPs to re-impose the full ban on organising in NI was defeated at 2008 Conference.

The reason for the stance is that the SDLP is a sister party within the Socialist International. I hope Labour will re-start a dialogue about building firmer, mutually beneficial ties with progressive forces in NI – both within the SDLP and without – in light of Cameron’s move.