Owen Polley lives in Belfast, where he campaigned for the Conservatives and Unionists at the general election. He blogs at Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness.
Contrary to local activists’ expectations, the Conservative Party has chosen not to contest this year’s Assembly election in Northern Ireland.
The decision was announced in early September, following a meeting between Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott and Tory Chairman, Andrew Feldman. It was swiftly followed by the resignation of NI Conservative chairman, Irwin Armstrong, who believes he had secured agreement for a fully funded Assembly campaign.
Many Northern Ireland members feel let down and argue that the party has performed a U-turn. Certainly there was every sign, before December 8th last year, that preparations were in place to field Assembly candidates.
During his recent Leonard Steinberg Lecture, Secretary of State Owen Paterson claimed that his party intends to remain involved in electoral politics in the Province for the long term. He also hinted that, next time, the Tories were prepared to drop the UUP and go it alone. Local Conservatives were confident that a CCHQ-endorsed Stormont campaign would be launched within weeks.
And it seemed a timely moment for the party to dip a toe into the murky waters of Northern Ireland regional politics. For the first time an Assembly election is likely to be dominated by issues around the economy. Traditional divisions will form a backdrop to the campaign, rather than its central theme.
In Ulster, as in Scotland and Wales, the effects of cuts are an overarching concern, bestowing on devolved politics a risky dimension which Westminster parties cannot afford to ignore.
Famously, the former Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, George Robertson, predicted that devolution would ’kill nationalism stone dead’. As it turned out, nationalist and regionalist politicians adapted best to the new political landscape, quickly mastering its complicated interplay of allegiances and grievances.
National parties are less sure-footed when it comes to devolution. In the current climate it is even more important that they finally get to grips with the UK’s changed constitutional layout and tailor policies and institutions accordingly. In Scotland, attempts to address these failings from a Tory perspective are at least underway.
The Government’s new Scotland Bill will implement most of the Calman Commission proposals and attempt to anticipate grievances before they can nourish separatism. Meanwhile the Sanderson Report recommends that Scottish Conservatives develop an identity distinct from their counterparts south of the border.
The emphasis is on Tory politics with a Scottish accent: grounded in the national interest, but able to respond to devolved issues with substantial autonomy. It’s a template which Conservatives in Ulster were keen to follow.
Northern Ireland forms a vital part of a regional patchwork, with which national parties must now engage. It is also at the front line of efforts to immunise Britain from a financial contagion, which could sweep northwards and eastwards from the Republic of Ireland.
At the Westminster election the Conservatives allied with Ulster Unionists to offer a voice ’at the heart of the Union’. It was an imaginative attempt to resolve the regional / national conundrum by franchising out Conservatism to a local party, albeit one with historic Tory links.
Unfortunately it proved confusing to voters and the UUP was an unreliable proponent of Conservative policy. UCUNF was no substitute for a strong local Tory organisation, with concrete links to the UK party, but afforded enough independence to adapt its message for Northern Ireland.
The intention is now to persist with a looser Ulster Unionist / Conservative link for the Assembly election. UUP MLAs will not be subject to a Conservative whip at Stormont and Conservative input is likely to be minimal.
Some local activists are angry. They believed that they had convinced CCHQ that, rather than leave Ulster matters to the UUP, Tory MLAs should be present at the Assembly, providing a distinctive local voice and arguing the merits of government policy for this part of the United Kingdom.
By rejecting that argument, the party apparatus suggests that it knows better how to react to conditions than its troops on the ground. That approach has already been exposed as bankrupt throughout the devolved regions.
The Stormont Assembly is at a vital interface, where the British economy meets its troubled counterpart to the south. In the wider interests of the UK, Westminster parties must get their hands dirty in the politics of devolved regions and Northern Ireland can no longer be an awkward exception.
If it is ever to successfully reconcile broader UK interests with devolved politics in the nations and regions, the Conservative Party must work hard to increase representation at every level of government, especially across Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It should change its mind and field candidates for the Stormont Assembly.