According to yesterday’s Irish News, the local Northern Irish wing of the Conservatives are getting increasingly concerned about the national Party’s relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party.
The paper reports that the concerns of the local NI Conservatives (alas, their full name really is ‘NI’) are going to be raised formally at an upcoming board meeting.
Particular focus is given to the now-reversed decision by James Brokenshire, the Northern Irish Secretary and ally of Theresa May, to attend a DUP fundraising dinner.
A letter of complaint addressed to Patrick McLoughlin, the Party Chairman, has also been drafted by the Northern Irish party board.
It has yet to be circulated publicly, but the version I saw drew specific attention to the Party’s treatment of the DUP at conference:
“The decision to allow them to rally our party members within the conference venue at a fringe event was bewildering but to see them fêted in the conference arena by Esther McVey was particularly galling. This act handed credibility to our political opponents and further set back the prospects of equal citizenship, and Conservative representation in Northern Ireland. For those of us who recently worked for 18 months, over two gruelling campaigns, to provide the positive change Northern Ireland requires, the day’s events were particularly hurtful.”
I noted this love-bombing campaign in my column earlier this week – but this isn’t confined to conference.
Senior Ulster members can pick out other examples of DUP politicians – particularly MPs – being nice to the Tories, be it Sammy Wilson backing the Government on grammar schools in the Commons or Gavin Robinson defending Theresa May’s comments about “divisive nationalists” on TV.
They also claim that grassroots DUP activists on the ground are taking an uncommon interest in the Conservatives. Some suspect a deal is afoot: not just an ad hoc Parliamentary arrangement, but possibly something more substantial. Others feel they have been marginalised from the process: “It would just be nice to be asked – we’re the local experts.”
Arithmetically, the case for some kind of deal is obvious. The eight DUP MPs would substantially boost the Government’s slender majority, which could be crucial if my hunch is wrong and May really does want to avoid an early election.
Sustained support from a Northern Irish party would also help to boost the Government’s unionist, ‘One Nation’ credentials. As the only one of Britain’s front-rank regional parties to back Brexit, the EU referendum campaign appears to have injected a new pan-UK perspective into the historically (and somewhat ironically) rather parochial DUP.
May and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, also seem likely to find it much more congenial to do business with each other than the two parties’ leaderships will ever have found in the past.
Although it seems unlikely, the appeal of a more permanent alliance between the two is also clear: a return of Northern Irish MPs to Government at the UK-level would be a welcome development, and the DUP will want to combat any suggestion that Northern Ireland is being marginalised or ignored.
(That the province’s current semi-detached status owes a great debt to decades of DUP policy is not overlooked by the NI Conservatives’ letter: “The DUP, in our consideration, are separatists, if by accident and not design.”)
However, risks and downsides aren’t hard to find either, both for the short-term political interests of the Conservatives or for the longer-term health of the Union.
In the short term, the Party should be wary of getting linked too closely with a party as socially conservative as the DUP which, as the local Tories again point out, is currently the primary force preventing Northern Ireland from joining up with the mainland on issues like gay marriage.
This makes it very difficult for any sort of electoral pact – which some Ulster members fear – to take place. The Conservatives simply can’t endorse such positions, even tacitly.
In the long run, any kind of permanent arrangement between the two parties risks betraying the very mission which has led the Party to commit for so long – and admittedly, for so little reward – to offering candidates in Northern Ireland.
Ulster’s endemic unionist parties fall short in two major areas, from the Conservative and Unionist perspective: they totally fail to win support from Catholics, even when they are well-disposed towards the Union; and they contribute almost as much as the actual nationalists to the province’s alienation from British political life.
The reasons for both are obvious enough. On the first point, both the DUP and Ulster Unionists are products of Protestant politics, and the former faces a steeper climb than the latter due to its origins as a vehicle for hard-line resistance to the compromises of the UUP.
As for the latter, it is simply the logic of devolved politics: it is always easier to rail against London than to take ownership of difficult national decisions, and always more tempting to demand more power (and the associated prestige, pay, and perks) than to concentrate on the unglamorous exercise of powers you already have.
Together, these suggest that the least satisfactory and most dangerous option for Downing Street would be a halfway house: an attempt to bank the DUP’s votes at Westminster on a permanent basis whilst effectively abdicating any attempt to challenge their politics in Northern Ireland.
One alternative would be a typical Westminster deal: relatively loose, confined to Parliament, and conducted behind closed doors. Yet unlikely as it is, it should be noted that really committing to an alliance might work for the Tories too.
Any such merger would almost certainly entail both a dropping of the Catholic-repelling DUP brand and a certain degree of personnel churn, with hard-liners departing for the TUV and perhaps others tempted over from the UUP or elsewhere.
The result would be a real ‘New Force‘ (although hopefully called something else), combining the DUP’s strong local machine with the Conservatives’ ability to bring to bear the big guns like the Prime Minister.
If Foster could use it as a justification for driving through serious reform of some her party’s positions, and the arrangement forced Northern Irish MPs to own and defend UK Government decisions, it might be possible to reach a settlement that didn’t betray, but in fact served and advanced, the Tory purpose in Ulster.
Absent these conditions, however, CCHQ should tread carefully when dealing with the DUP - and at least consider the advice of those Party members most familiar with them.