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.
We tend to instinctually think that it is the right and honourable thing for a Minister to do to resign if there has been a hint of wrongdoing. It’s frequently said of Irish Ministers that they don’t take fall on their sword and take that ultimate responsibility, often for faults that are later forgotten. People wonder why it is that we don’t have this in our culture; after all, Peter Mandelson does it all the time.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the best thing to do. In the case of Peter Robinson, after hearing that had left some of his wife’s financial dealings undisclosed and only revealed them now that he was being investigated by Spotlight and Panorama, many people felt that his position was untenable. Then, we wondered if it would be worth it, given the instability that exists already in the process of devolution. Given that there is at least some professional relationship and understanding between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, this would be set back if a new DUP leader were to succeed him. This new leader would not as strong a figure within Unionism as Mr Robinson. And he would have to be put to a vote of the Assembly, jointly with Martin McGuinness, which could not be secured at this impasse.
Then consider the human element of the story. Iris Robinson’s affair and the financial impropriety that followed cannot be laid at the hands of her husband. When he found out about it, she was in a state of mental distress and suicidal.
Under these circumstances it should really be enough that he did everything mostly right. As I said elsewhere, I would not like to think that I’d have acted much differently in a similar situation.
Also, given the increasing suspicion that Gerry Adams concealed knowledge of his brother’s paedophilic abuse, the Robinson affair has been put in some perspective.
The six-week break from his duties, with Arlene Foster now as Acting First Minister (progress as some small level to have a woman in the office), he can allow the investigation to continue. The report may find minor misdemeanours, but nothing to warrant his resignation. He might be subject to censure by the Assembly, but nothing more. This will bring us up to 22 February, with the Westminster election expected in May. Hopefully enough time to put this behind, and allow the DUP and UUP/Conservatives to focus on minimizing the impact of Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice, which does not really have the manpower to launch a serious attack on a unified DUP.