Great news from East Belfast, where the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long has taken out First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. Great to see an Alliance Party MP elected after 40 years, and 36 years after Stratton Mills, who had left after being elected from the Ulster Unionist Party, retired in 1974.
The Alliance are avowedly non-sectarian, though it has been difficult for them at times for them to maintain their identity. I look forward to seeing how they can shape themselves now on the Westminster stage. It is also a gain for the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Alliance are aligned.
Peter Robinson won his seat here in 1979, in a close three-way contest against the Ulster Unionist Party’s William Craig and the Alliance Party’s Oliver Napier, with less than a thousand votes separating the three candidates, and till tonight, it was considered a solidly safe seat for the DUP. As a hung parliament is likely, and the DUP will need someone to be able negotiate any arrangements, his leadership may well be on the line quite soon.
Well, ding dong, the witch is dead.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
David Cameron has shown himself aware of Conservative Party history on the Irish question, such as when he declared in 2008 that he had a “selfish and strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.
With apologies for going on about the recent meeting between these parties while more serious negotiations are ongoing, the history of the location came to mind. One might wonder about the symbolism of Hatfield House as the location for the talks between the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists. This is the home of the Robert, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. In no way do I mean to impugn the marquess’s character, a political figure in his own right as a Conservative MP between 1979 and 1987. But it is interesting to remember that his great-great-grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, led the first Unionist government. When William Ewart Gladstone, then leader of the Liberal Party, gave his support to Home Rule in 1886, his party split, with the Liberal Unionists, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, aligning themselves with the Conservatives. Gladstone’s government fell and Salisbury led a Unionist government until 1892. It would not be far fetched to think that discussions between Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea happened in 1886 in Hatfield House, just as they did this year.
Or at least, they say it was about both. First off, they defend Ben Brogan’s piece on the Telegraph site David Cameron is a Unionist, remember?, as if to say that even if that was what it was about, that would be ok. Then they say that it was about the Tories putting pressure on the UUP to support the DUP in the event of a deal on policing.
The piece claims “After all, Irish political parties will sometimes discuss politics from a nationalist view with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and at the same time”. We do have to concede this in part. Members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have maintained informal associational ties with members of the SDLP, and all four parties did meet in 1984 at the New Ireland Forum. There have been secret service talks, from the Hume–Adams talks in the early 1990s to discussions on decommissioning in more recent times, something both governments engaged in. What we have not seen is an opposition party south of the border negotiating with both the SDLP and Sinn Féin to discuss politics from a nationalist point of view.
For equivalent reasons, I would be critical of Fianna Fáil moves to establish itself North of the border.
But even if we suppose that they discussed matters like policing, which presumably was on the agenda given the current deadlock, are Conservatives going to claim that the talks in Lord Salisbury’s residence in Hatfield House were “all about trying to bolster peace and security”?
If either of the Unionist parties do stand aside in marginal nationalist constituencies, such as Fermanagh–South Tyrone or South Belfast, will they maintain that this was not discussed at all during these talks?
That this has nothing to do with securing every possible vote in the Commons after the election to avoid the possibility of a hung parliament? I don’t think anyone really believes that.
In 1990, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke, declared that the Conservative government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. This marked a significant step for his party, still formally titled the Conservative and Unionist Party, and it paved the way for the Downing Street Declaration issued by An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major in December 1993, leading in turn to the IRA ceasefire of the following year.
In his speech to the 2008 Ulster Unionist Party Conference, Conservative Party leader David Cameron chose words to deliberately suggest that was repudiating Brooke’s sentiments, saying that he wanted to include Ulster Unionists in his government, expected to come into office later this year, “It’s in my own selfish and strategic interests, too”.
This week, reports emerged of talks between the Tories, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party on electoral strategy. These will presumably aim to raise the total Unionist representation in the Commons with the parties standing aside in marginal nationalist constituencies. The Ulster Unionists could stand aside in Fermanagh–South Tyrone in favour of Acting First Minister Arlene Foster, targeting Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, and the DUP could stand aside in South Belfast, giving the UUP a better shot against the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell.
There has been a shift in recent elections in the community division of representation in Westminster, with 13 Unionist and five nationalist MPs in 1997, whereas two elections later in 2005 there were 10 Unionist and eight nationalist MPs, a ratio that is somewhat more representative of the division across Northern Ireland.
While nationalists had long assumed a level of understanding between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists (they took the Tory whip in the Commons until 1974), it is a step too far for them to stomach such favourability towards the DUP. That David Cameron is willing to be perceived as taking sides in the divisive politics of Northern Ireland for the sake of a few extra votes in the Commons can most kindly be described as foolish, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right to chastise him. Some of the comments on Conservative Home seem to show how little British Tories really understand the politics of Northern Ireland. Trust is all-important in the delicate political process of Northern Ireland, unless the parties believe that the governments can do what they can to put aside their instinctive sensibilities on tribal loyalties, negotiations will be ever more strained.
The best hope for moderate Unionism will be in the re-election of Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down. She opposed the electoral alliance with the Conservatives, and has yet to agree to stand under the Conservative label. Her votes in parliament show her far closer to the Labour Party than the Conservatives. Alas, this could also have the effect of furthering the identity crisis within Unionism, with a four-way division from the civility of Hermon to the hardline stance of Jim Allister.