With (another) Assembly
election likely in Northern Ireland
in March 2007, Jeffrey Peel, Spokesman for the NI Area of the Conservatives,
considers a more secular basis for Northern Ireland politics.

Northern Ireland is an odd place. 
Yes it’s normalising.  Yes we have an array of glistening new
shopping centres, the fastest increase in house prices in the UK outside
London, and there is a new confidence in the new Northern Ireland. 
But there is still that feeling of difference from the rest of the UK…in
fact from the rest of Europe…indeed from the rest of the first world. 
Because Northern Ireland still has a political system that is of the
third world.

What do I mean by this? 
Well consider a third world democracy.  Most have tribal or sect
based political systems – if they have any real democracy at all. 
These tribal/sect based political parties are nearly always religious
associations.  Unless the tribal basis of politics can be replaced
with the secular, there is nearly always no progress. 

Just look
at what’s happening in Iraq and what happened in Rwanda. 
AC Grayling, writing in the Guardian a few days ago,
summed this up very neatly recently…(just think about Northern Ireland
when reading his words):

“Secularism is the view that
church and state (religion and national government) should be kept separate…Religious
interference or, worse, control of government has a ready tendency to
degenerate into what we might revealingly call Talibanism, as history
and current affairs overwhelmingly and tragically attest.”

I, for one, don’t relish the idea of Ian Paisley’s style of Talibanism
or Gerry Adams’ for that matter. 

Northern Ireland has been characterised
by non-secular, tribal based politics since partition.  The Ulster
Unionist Party broke away from the Conservative Party given the need
to defend the Union and the ‘Protestant’ people.  Ditto the
spin-off Parties – including the ultra-Protestant DUP.  And providing
a neat counter-balance has been Sinn Fein and the almost universally
Catholic Irish nationalist parties. 

Many of us here cannot find anything
about the sectarian based political system in Northern Ireland attractive. 
Ironically, when people from Northern Ireland leave these shores and
settle in England they seem to find it remarkably easy to adapt to a
normal political system…witness
Kate Hoey (who has been working hard to persuade
the Labour Party to organise here) or Brian Mawhinney, the former Chairman
of the Conservative Party (and Ulsterman). 

But, here, politicians actually
have to
define themselves as Unionist or Nationalist in the Assembly. 
And direct rule ministers go native when they arrive at Stormont Castle. 
They seem to think that we have been born sectarian.  They cite
the popularity of the local parties.  But, then again, there has
been nothing else on offer.

In the mid 90s things changed. 
After a protracted campaign
local Conservative
at last recognised by Central Office.  In the early days the Party
seemed to have a realistic prospect of doing well – a number of Conservative
councillors were elected.  However, the fortune of the local Party
reflected that of the national Party in the late 90s and early noughties. 
But with the election of David Cameron it has been undergoing a resurgence. 
Cameron, as well as his Shadow NI Secretary, David Lidington (pictured), have been
making clear that they want to see a focus on real politics. 
On his most recent visit to Belfast Cameron made clear that he would
campaign with local Conservative candidates in the lead-up to the Assembly
elections.  We are also confident that other shadow cabinet members
will give us support – as they did at this year’s Party conference.

As David Cameron put it on his

I want politics in Northern Ireland to be about the real
things – schools, hospitals, tax…not about timetables, deadlines
and institutional arrangements.  And I want the Conservative Party to
be a part of that new politics."

We don’t expect to be the biggest
political Party in Northern Ireland for some time – tribal thinking
can be difficult to displace.  But we are helping to create a political
system that sits outside of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland. 
And we need support – financial, campaigning and blogging.  Please
write to me
if you’d like to lend your help in
making Northern Ireland part of the political mainstream.

Related link: Neil Johnston’s ‘Northern Ireland – Time for a better beginning’

17 comments for: Jeffrey Peel: Conservatism and Humanism in Northern Ireland

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