The Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland this morning, meeting the heads of the province’s devolved government on the latest leg of her tour of the devolved capitals.
Much as in Cardiff and Edinburgh, her aim is to ensure that Belfast is given a fair hearing ahead of the Brexit negotiations and reassure Stormont that Ulster’s interests will be given proper weight as the UK negotiates.
Theresa May will also be addressing the added complication of the future of our border with the Republic of Ireland. Many fear that leaving the EU will make our much older Common Travel Area with Ireland unsustainable, but the Government will apparently rule out any return to a ‘hard’ border.
Such a commitment – along with ruling out a border poll, given the scant evident that sufficient unionists are sufficiently wedded to the EU to put the outcome in any doubt – is the correct approach, if it can be made to work. Aside from keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, our open relationship with the Republic has deep historic roots and is of great benefit to both countries.
But in addition to being Prime Minister, May is also the leader of the Conservative (and, as she would insist, Unionist) Party. She must be prepared to visit the Province in both roles during her premiership.
One of David Cameron’s most obviously principled positions – the rewards were too scant for it to have been anything else – was his abiding commitment to offering Northern Irish voters an opportunity to vote for him.
He recognised, rightly, that they were ill-served if their only options were local parties with little-to-no chance of ever being part of the British Government which, even in the era of devolution, will continue to make important decisions that affect them.
For a variety of reasons, including bouts of both bad luck and bad leadership, the local Conservatives have struggled to get off the ground. If that’s to change then more attention from Number Ten is essential.
Simply put, the Prime Minister is their ace in the hole. One candidate in May’s devolved election found their vote was much lower than in 2015, despite a much more winnable race. The reason? David Cameron had been all over the news during the former, making voting Conservative a much more realistic-seeming option.
May is hardly averse to canvassing, if her commitment to maintaining weekly rounds whilst Prime Minister is any indication. To see the leader of the country taking an interest in Stormont elections, and pounding the streets of Belfast with a candidate, could have a significant impact.
This is about more than simply giving the Tories a shot at more representation, which is a long way off. If the apparent fragility of the Union is any indication, one of the challenges facing the Government and those that follow it will be to re-knit some of the bonds that hold Britain together.
With a majority in the province having voted Remain, it is more important than ever that we bring voters there an attractive, positive vision for a globally-oriented United Kingdom that they will want to be a member of – especially voters who don’t fit the traditional unionist mould.
Neither of the two main local pro-Union parties look capable of doing that at the moment.
A strong sense of Britishness, fostered by a national political discourse, is also essential if the UK is to move beyond its current state of surviving year-to-year on the state of the balance sheets. As the EU is learning to its cost, a strong layer of common politics are the cement of a successful union.
Unionists must be as proud of our country as separatists are of theirs – and the Prime Minister should make her case in every part of it. Northern Ireland is, to borrow a phrase, as British as Maidenhead.