Mel Stride MP is PPS to John Hayes MP, founder of the Deep Blue group of centre-right 2010 Conservative MPs, a former member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and MP for Central Devon.
Towards the end of the 2010 election campaign, it became increasingly clear that a hung parliament was the likely outcome. As opinion polls stubbornly refused to move, attention began to turn to consideration of the kind of deal that could be struck in the event of no party winning an overall majority. One possible scenario was an agreement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party. The media began to wonder if such a deal were possible. What would the DUP want in return for their support?
In the event, the eight seats the DUP won in the 2010 election would not have been enough to secure a majority or even a stable minority Government. But the urgency with which questions were raised about the DUP’s position suggested a lack of forethought about the kind of mutually beneficial relationship we might develop with the main Unionist party in Northern Ireland, and what those benefits might be for both parties as well as to the United Kingdom as a whole.
Notwithstanding the recent protests around parades and the flying of the Union Flag and, of course, the hugely bumpy ride around the ‘on the run’ letters (credit to the Prime Minister for his handling of another crisis), there can be little doubt that the years following the Good Friday agreement in 1998 have witnessed a significant transformation of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the willingness of all the major parties in the province to work towards resolving these remaining issues through the Haas Commission – albeit that much remains to be done – demonstrates just how much things have changed since the peace process began during John Major’s premiership in the early 1990s.
There is, of course, always the possibility of a destructive upsurge in violence and terrorist activity, but as things stand the troubles are receding and Northern Ireland has become a different place. Whilst sectarianism is very evident in parts of the province and especially amongst the schooling of children (93 per cent are educated within effectively segregated schools), many of the old divisions are not as strong as they once were. One in ten marriages are now between Protestants and Catholics. Some polling shows that the majority of Catholics want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet, while civil society has become perhaps less polarised, Northern Irish politics remains largely divided along clear sectarian lines.
One way in which these divisions might be softened is for the Westminster parties to organise in the Province, and the Conservative Party was the first of the major parties to do so, with candidates standing at the 1992 General Election. Following the end of the formal alliance with the UUP after the 2010 election, the party has been re-launched under the branding of ‘NI Conservatives’. David Cameron spoke enthusiastically at the organisation’s event at the 2013 Party Conference. The importance of the Conservative presence in Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. However, neither should it be exaggerated – opinion polls suggest that we only enjoy about two per cent support, and it is difficult to build a party from the ground up, particularly where there already exist well-established parties with long and deeply rooted connections to the electorate.
Of these well-established parties, The DUP would appear to have decisively eclipsed the UUP as the dominant party of Unionism but, like all political parties, it faces challenges. Although it won an additional two seats at the 2011 Assembly elections, its actual share of the vote went down very slightly (0.1 per cent). The DUP and, more particularly, the UUP suffered at the hands of the Alliance, which saw its vote go up by 2.5 per cent, a significant rise given that political loyalties tend to be well established in the Province. The Alliance also gained the seat of Belfast East from the DUP at the last general election. Naomi Long beat DUP leader Peter Robinson by 1,533 votes, although Robinson’s campaign was hindered by a series of damaging allegations.
While the Alliance Party has the admirable goal of moving past sectarian divisions, its agenda is distinctly liberal and it enjoys links with the Liberal Democrats. The rise of the Alliance (which takes disproportionately from the unionist vote), together with continued support for the UUP and the muted rise of the ultra-traditionalist TUV and other minority pro-union parties demonstrates the possibility of the Unionist vote becoming more fractured, potentially enabling Sinn Fein to make further electoral headway – leading, in turn, to an unhelpful increase in abstentionist non-representation at Westminster. The importance of a united Unionist position was demonstrated in 2010 in the seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the DUP and UUP both stood aside and a single independent Unionist candidate only lost to the sitting Sinn Fein MP by four votes.
Building more formal bridges between the Conservatives and the DUP could be a part of a wider move on the part of unionism to develop a broader, more united Unionist platform in Northern Ireland. This would hold its challenges as well as its attractions – the enmities between different unionist parties are often particularly acute (c.f the Conservatives and UKIP) – but, given our clear potential to win the next election, we should be in a good position to assist with the brokering of a more united unionist Westminster offering in the province. Such an agreement would, in turn, hold significant advantages for the DUP (still fighting for the interests of Ulster as a distinct Northern Irish party) and be able perhaps to deliver within government. For Conservatives, an alliance of sorts could offer those vital additional seats that might make all the difference to our prospects for continuing to govern.
There are more noble reasons, of course, for us to work with the DUP than simply the numbers. In addition to our firm embrace of unionism (unequivocal compared with Labour) another vital common cause is our approach to the European Union. When David Cameron vetoed the proposed new EU treaty in December 2011, the DUP tabled a motion ‘commending’ the PM over Europe. By contrast, the Lib Dems declined to support the motion, choosing to abstain. The DUP also supported James Wharton’s bill for an EU referendum.
Another reason to reach out now to the DUP concerns the price of any later arrangement. When the possibility of a deal was suddenly raised near the end of the 2010 campaign, it was reported that the DUPs condition would have been a commitment to cancel £200 million of cuts to Northern Ireland’s public sector. Such tough transactional terms were understandable given that the Conservatives were in an electoral alliance with their main political rivals, and would have only turned to them for support at the last minute when we suddenly needed them. More sensible terms should follow from a better relationship with some issues scoped out in advance.
Coalition Government has taught us the importance of developing and nurturing connections with other political parties. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have explicitly ruled out a referendum on our membership of the EU. It could just be that an alliance with the other political party represented in Westminster that wants to protect our sovereignty will enable us to deliver on our commitment to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, deliver a historic referendum and govern again after May 2015.