By Matthew Barrett
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Today Conservative co-chairman Lord Feldman announced the creation of a new party: the Conservative and Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The Party Board has approved plans for the new Party's creation. The Party will have a seat on the central Party Board, initially with observer status, but gaining full membership as the Party grows. CCHQ says that the Party will be reconstituted on the same basis as the Welsh Conservative Party.
It will have its own Chairman, officers and set of rules, which will be responsible for overseeing the new Party on the ground. Once it has found its feet – CCHQ has published no timetable – it will also have the power to appoint an interim leader before leadership elections take place later in the year. The Conservative Party campaign centre in Bangor, County Down, will remain.
The formation of a new Party is an interesting development in Northern Irish politics. Some would have been tempted to abandon attempts to establish the Conservative brand in the province following the poor showing the Party made in the last general election, when candidates from the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party stood under the banner "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force" (UCUNF).
Although 102,361 votes were cast for UCUNF, which is only a few short of the SDLP, who won three seats, the Party only came second in East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down, South Antrim, Strangford, and Upper Bann. Almost all of those seats voted overwhelmingly for Unionist parties, and there was a modest swing away from UCUNF of 2.6% (as compared to the UUP's 2005 result).
Not only did UCUNF fail to get any new candidates elected, but it effectively lost an MP, as Lady Hermon, previously the UUP MP for North Down, ran as an independent, and won a heavy victory over the UCUNF candidate. The only two bright spots for Northern Irish Conservatives came in the form, firstly, of Rodney Connor, an independent candidate endorsed by both UCUNF and the Democrat Unionist Party, who failed to take Fermanagh and South Tyrone by only five votes. The second bright spot was the relatively close loss of then-UUP leader Reg Empey, who lost South Antrim by 1,183 votes. It's perhaps worth noting that, as with Lord Trimble, Empey was made a Conservative peer in the House of Lords.
As a result of the unsuccessful link-up with the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists have found themselves in a troubling spot. They elected Tom Elliot as leader following the 2010 election, and UUP infighting has been unrelenting over the last 18 months. Only this morning, the BBC reported on the decision by Elliot to demote a UUP Assembly member for suggesting that a UUP junior minister could work under a DUP first minister.
As a result of the strained situation after the 2010 general election, the UUP fought the 2011 Assembly elections without any partnership with the Conservatives – the Tories were told to stand down in favour of the UUP. As a result of that decision, the Conservative Chairman in the province, Irwin Armstrong, resigned his position. The BBC reports that in February 2011, Armstrong announced he would remain in his post despite tendering his earlier resignation. CCHQ indicated today that Armstrong is still in his post and approves of the new Party.
In November, Lord Feldman wrote to Tom Elliot to suggest they disband and join a new, devolved Conservative Party in Northern Ireland. Elliot firmly rejected the proposal, with the BBC quoting him as saying:
"As indicated at our recent party conference, the party is planning significant research throughout Northern Ireland to test opinion on a number of issues, including any potential future relationships with the Conservatives. Any further development needs to be based on evidence that the electorate will respond favourably, and that we are able to start to mobilise unionist voters who have decided not to vote for any party in recent elections. I would not contemplate taking any significant decisions without such research."
The announcement today feels as though CCHQ is simply creating a new Northern Irish Conservative Party without the UUP, perhaps on the assumption that there is sufficient unrest amongst UUP members to provoke a number to support the new Conservative enterprise.
However, CCHQ has said the announcement followed discussions with the Ulster Unionists and instructions from the Prime Minister. A source close to the Northern Ireland Office said the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, had not been involved in the foundation of the new Northern Irish Party in any way.
It is to be welcomed that the central Party is expanding its operations in Northern Ireland: at a time when the Union is threatened by Scottish nationalism, British Unionists should be making a positive case for the United Kingdom in Ulster. With the fixed-term Parliament legislation, the next general election should be more than three years away. With the foundation of a new Conservative Party in Northern Ireland now, candidates will have much more time to earn votes. In the 2010 general election, candidates were selected in March, and had to be agreed by both the Tories and the UUP. This new Party can avoid such constraints.