Cllr Alex Stafford is an Ealing councillor, representing the Ealing Broadway ward, and former advisor to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Once a regular feature on the six o’clock news, Northern Ireland has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Now is the time to bring it back into mainstream politics and the Conservative Party should be at the forefront.
Ever since partition in 1921, Northern Ireland politics has been out of kilter with the mainland. Whilst Scotland and Wales lobbied long and hard for a Secretary of State, Northern Ireland had its own Prime Minister, Parliament and Senate. It had a level of autonomy that Nicola Sturgeon can only dream of.
The Conservative Party had an official link with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), with some of thier MPs even sitting in Conservative Cabinets. However, this link was broken in the early 1970s because of the introduction of Direct Rule due to the worsening situation of the Troubles.
For the first time in its history Northern Ireland politics was substantially cast adrift from that of the mainland. The next three decades saw Northern Ireland increasingly out of step with Britain’s political change and modernisation.
The liberalising privatisation of the 1980s never materialised, and the country became more and more reliant on the state sector as terror groups bombed and shot out most of the vestiges of private enterprise.
With over 70 per cent of the economy reliant on the public sector, Northern Ireland is still weighed down by the lasting effects of conflict and let down by its current politicians. For the good of the country, this needs to change.
The mantra for too long has been that mainland politics cannot work in Northern Ireland, with its specific needs and history. However, this is not only untrue, but also one of the reasons why Northern Ireland is often not seen as prominently as the other three constituent countries in the UK.
Whilst Labour continues its link with the SDLP, who vote with and support them on virtually all issues, UKIP has been successfully building and winning elections in Northern Ireland, with several councillors and even a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is more than the Conservatives currently have.
UKIP have shown that national politics can work and can appeal electorally. With the Assembly Elections next year, now is the perfect time for the Conservatives to make an electoral impact in Northern Ireland and to reassert its place in the country’s politics.
Over the past few decade,s those in Northern Ireland carrying the torch of conservatism have done a superb job, battling for the attention of politicians who are too focused on battles in the mainland. Now is the time to reward their hard work and focus on Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Conservatives have some great candidates, such as Neil Wilson in Belfast East, Ben Manton in South Belfast, and Frank Shivers in North Down, ably led by Chairman Harry Cullen and Vice Chairman Neil Johnston.
But they cannot succeed alone. It is up to mainland Conservatives to support what they do.
It was a very positive sign that so many mainland-based Conservatives wanted to fight seats in Northern Ireland at the General Election.
The Conservative Party has a good history of moving people around the country to fight different seats, ensuring no area is neglected and that the best talent is widely used. It not only demonstrates to the population that we truly are a unionist party of the entire country, but it also gives great experience to those on the mainland, proving that Northern Ireland is no different from the rest of the UK.
Indeed Amandeep Singh Bhogal, who stood in Upper Bann and was the first Sikh to ever run in Northern Ireland, is standing for the London GLA, bringing Northern Ireland into the heart of the UK.
I hope soon that good Northern Ireland candidates will be selected to fight seats across the rest of the UK, bringing back their experience to the Province. However, there is a lot more to be done in order to start winning areas.
When David Cameron became leader he put a lot of emphasis on the Conservatives being the party of the entire UK.
Working on the deal leading to re-establishing official links with the UUP, I saw the Party’s burning commitment to bringing Northern Ireland back into the mainstream and ensuring that every single elector in the UK had a chance to vote for a national government.
Whilst unsuccessful in winning a Westminster seat, in the 2009 European Parliament elections Jim Nicholson was elected on a joint ticket with the UUP, demonstrating that there is both an interest in conservatism and that the Conservatives are truly committed to Northern Ireland.
We all need to continue to make progress. More mainland politicians need to go to Northern Ireland and continue to build on the good work being done there. We need to have action days ahead of the Assembly Election to provide much needed ground troops to support our candidates.
There needs to be fundraisers in the mainland for Northern Ireland. We should consider twinning constituencies in Northern Ireland with those on the mainland, in the same way that towns in the UK are twinned across the world, providing a support network as well as increasing mainland participation in Northern Ireland and vice versa.
Mainland politicians and politics can learn as much from Northern Ireland as they can from the mainland.
The battle to win will be hard, but it is far from impossible and is necessary for the development of Northern Ireland. For the good of the country it needs to be fought and won.
The focus should be on council and Assembly seats, where proportional voting can bolster our chances, giving us the real possibility of victory. UKIP has tapped this successfully, so should we.
After all, as Thatcher once stated, “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”, and with its politics we should treat it no differently.