CCHQ must root out the rot in the NI Conservatives
I took a couple of days off to spend a long weekend in Northern Ireland. I’d like to dress it up as dedication and claim that, so bemused was your Ulster columnist at the dire performance of our regional allies, that I upped sticks and went to investigate.
In truth, I was on holiday. I’ve written before that Northern Ireland in general, and Belfast in particular, is a truly lovely spot, the first encounter of which is made all the better by the sort of expectation management that thirty years of civil war does to a province’s reputation. It’s also rather cheap.
But it wasn’t an entirely apolitical trip. I was staying in West Belfast, in the home of the (Catholic) chairman of Northern Irish Conservative Future. I met up with a fair number of other young Conservatives whilst I was there. I also got to tour the region a little – Londonderry and Armagh, at least – whilst the posters and other efforts from the election were still in place. From all this, I’ve been able to draw a few conclusions – and had a few others drawn for me in precise and forceful terms.
First, UKIP. The simple answer to why UKIP performed comparably well in Northern Ireland – three councillors, more than twenty thousand European votes – by one observer was that “they tried”. And based on what I saw over the weekend I can believe that. The Irish electoral fashion, north and south, is for rigid posters lashed to lamp-posts. I saw a fair number for UKIP, but more importantly they cropped up wherever I visited.
Derry’s Waterside, a unionist area, sported some. As did Armagh. Several large boards greeted everyone driving out of Belfast International Airport, and the party even shelled out for some of its infamous billboards in Belfast.
The NI Conservatives did not have billboards. I saw no evidence of them at all in Derry and Armagh. Apparently we confined our effort to Belfast and North Down, but even in Belfast there were only one or two places where we had clearly blitzed the posters for a local council candidate named Manton. Of our European candidate, Mark Brotherston, I saw no posters at all.
Which might explain why we took a contemptible four thousand votes, across the whole of Northern Ireland. Bear in mind that CCHQ pays the NI Conservatives enough to maintain an office, within which sits a full-time campaign manager.
According to numerous sources inside the NI Conservatives, the rot is at the top. The party has continually postponed taking obvious steps to engage members and raise its profile, like having an elected leader. There is no policy formulation. It is even alleged that the registration of two new constituency branches – North Belfast and East Londonderry – were held up because their votes might tip the balance of power against the current leadership and the chairman, Irwin Armstrong.
I mean no disrespect to UKIP when I say that they prove that breaking into Northern Ireland far from impossible: the party might even be on course to snatch a second assembly seat in South Down (Enoch Powell’s old stomping ground), courtesy of NI21’s John McCallister.
But it seems the NI Conservatives remain bewitched by two possibilities: a repeat of 1992, where Dr Laurence Kennedy stormed into second place in North Down with 16,000 votes, or a high-profile defection to the party from elsewhere. What unites both of these visions is that neither of them involve doing the sort of hard work that has got UKIP where it is, let alone the bigger parties.
If our party is sincere in its commitment to offer the British citizens of Northern Ireland a credible chance to vote for a party of government – and I firmly believe we should be – then the NI Conservatives are clearly in dire need of root-and-branch reform. CCHQ should make sure it happens.
Welsh to be given prominence on all Welsh signs
Dire health and education outcomes are all very well, but what about the really important issues facing Wales? The Jones administration has shown itself on top of the really important things by announcing that the Welsh language will now be given pre-eminence over English on all signs throughout the principality, as and when current signs need replacing.
This is the latest triumph for that hyper-active section of Welsh civil society that exhibits a Quebec-like obsession with the status of the language. It is likewise a blow for localism, for previously local councils got to choose which language to give prominence to in accordance with local sensibilities. The imbalance of power between these two forces is clearly on display in the above-linked article, with pro-localism Tory MP David Davies given a paragraph and “this has not gone far enough!” language campaigners given about half the article.
But despite all that, I don’t think it will make a huge amount of difference. When I lived in Ireland Gaelic was given pride of place on all road signs, and it still felt like a bit of nationalistic home decorating. No matter where it was on the sign the overwhelming majority of people were reading the English – because they could actually read the English.
NI21 leader McCrea receives sexual misconduct report
Basil McCrea, the embattled leader of Northern Ireland’s new NI21 party, has received an official internal report by his party into allegations of sexual misconduct. The report has been compiled by John McCallister, NI21’s deputy leader and formerly the other half of the ‘Jasil’ political double-act at the heart of the new party.
The report is at the centre of NI21’s recent electoral meltdown. McCrea allegedly attempted to drive McCallister, out of the party by re-designating NI21 from ‘unionist’ to ‘other’ in the Northern Irish assembly (McCallister is a staunch unionist). This then set off a cascade of disasters including the resignation of their European candidate, Catholic businesswoman Tina McKenzie, from the party executive “to spend more time with her family” on the eve of polling.
After all this the party limped to just 1.7 per cent of the provincial vote and saw a single councillor elected, despite fielding an impressive 47 candidates across the province, and dealt a serious and possibly fatal blow to its brand and any prospect of establishing itself as a permanent feature of the Northern Irish political landscape.
Scottish islands enter final talks for ‘more powers’
There’s been plenty of talk of devolution recently, since our party unveiled its devolution proposals. The response to these has been positive, and both ConHome’s resident Scottish expert and a prominent Scottish Labour blogger have both described the Strathclyde recommendations as a potential game-changer for the Scottish Conservatives.
Yet another devolutionary story that has been ticking quietly away in the background of the referendum debate has been the concerted effort by the Scottish islands to win more powers for themselves, regardless of the outcome this autumn. It looks like they will be successful, and we may well see the first serious instance of devolution within the jurisdiction of a devolved chamber.
Their motivations are rather different – the Western Isles are an SNP/Labour marginal, whereas the Northern Isles are both unshakeably Liberal and traditionally unionist, preferring London rule to Edinburgh. But with a looser yet still-extant Union looking the most likely outcome post-2014, they have joined forces to start the constitutional wrangling early.
Catholic Unionist Sir John Gorman passes away
On a sad end note, former Ulster Unionist MLA Sir John Gorman has passed away. Before retiring in 2003 he had a long career in Unionist politics, and served as an MLA when the new devolved assembly was established.
What marked Sir John out, however, was his being one of the rare Irish Catholics to be openly involved in Unionist politics (the only other that springs immediately to mind from my reading is William Kenny, who held Dublin St Stephen’s Green as a Liberal Unionist for six years until 1898). With a majority of Catholics currently favouring Northern Ireland’s connexion to Britain, but less than one per cent supporting the major unionist parties, his is an example that will be missed.