Yesterday’s News Letter reported that the Conservatives have taken a bold step in their Northern Irish manifesto and ruled out joint rule with the Republic of Ireland.
With the Assembly and devolved government still suspended following Spring’s snap election, so-called “joint authority” had been mooted as a possible outcome if devolution couldn’t be restored.
Under such provisions, theoretically, the UK and Republic of Ireland would govern Ulster together as a sort of quasi-condominium. This naturally horrifies Unionists, and the threat of it was cited by the DUP to justify going into coalition with Sinn Fein a decade ago.
The manifesto also reiterates that the Conservative and Unionist Party (as the title says in full) will not be neutral on the Union and shall campaign for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
After the liberal-flavoured efforts of the Cameroon era to break into Ulster politics – think ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force’ and green Union Jacks – this is something of a shift in tone. This is the party’s unionism in a more traditional aspect, and it will delight capital-U Unionists such as Arlene Foster, with whose Democratic Unionists the May Government has enjoyed an increasingly good working relationship.
Naturally, this will provoke a counter-reaction. There is in all our devolved debates a line of thinking which equates wisdom to appeasing the nationalists, and it will doubtless be argued that by toughening their line and moving farther from the role of neutral ‘honest broker’ the Tories are throwing fresh spanners into whichever parts of the Northern Irish works remain yet spanner-free.
However, there are two reasons that this move may have a positive impact on Ulster politics, in the immediate and longer term.
In the short term, as Sam McBride points out in his article, it changes the calculation for Sinn Fein. It should be clear to anybody familiar with the concept of danegeld that the Republicans were scarcely likely to restore the devolved institutions whilst they thought they could hold out for more concessions.
Some elements on the nationalist side, north and south of the border, also appear to have genuinely believed that London had completely ruled out a return to ‘direct rule’, leaving some form of shared administration as perhaps the only long-term alternative to devolution.
This announcement changes that calculation. Not only does it take a big reward for Republican intransigence off the table, but it also sends a very strong signal that a British Government led by Theresa May will not be minded to grant the separatists the further shopping list of indulgences they’d need to actually have a shot at breaking Northern Ireland away from Britain.
(As I reported in a recent column, the best plan currently being considered by the Irish Government involves London continuing to pay the full costs of running the Province for a full three decades after its absorption into Greater Ireland. The idea that there’s an economic imperative to Ulster leaving the UK is a total joke.)
This brings us to the potential longer-term benefit of this sort of stance: it might make Northern Irish unionists feel safe, and that would give them the breathing space they desperately need to change their game.
March’s snap elections were a self-inflicted disaster for capital-U Unionism, but in truth it has been trapped in a political cul-de-sac for decades, stuck on defence and reliant on rallying a dwindling core of voters with the singular goal of winning more seats than their nationalist opponents.
The trap works thus: Ulster’s status is guaranteed by referendum, and enough of the electorate have clocked this that turnout has slumped. But the major parties are still fixated with staying ahead on points. This often requires pacts, so they don’t diverge very much on economic or social issues. This lack of choice leads to more pro-UK voters staying at home, and the cycle continues.
In part, this fixation is explained by the fact that Unionists do not much trust the British Government. Just read what Foster had to say about it back in 2010 (courtesy of the News Letter): “Direct Rule never sided with unionists and was the back-door delivery mechanism for republicans. Devolution, though far from perfect, is immeasurably better than having decisions foisted on us.”
Because they think that direct rule from London would be almost as bad as a nationalist First Minister, the Unionists feel they have no option but to go all-out at being the biggest bloc in the devolved institutions, winning battles even as their wider strategic position slowly worsens.
(All of which is further aggravated by the fact that too many mainland writers and outlets continue to treat Northern Irish elections as border polls-by-proxy themselves, rolling out lots of excited “Is a United Ireland coming?!” copy with scarcely any easy-to-research “No, it really isn’t.” pieces to balance them out.)
Unionism needs to break out of the bunker, both to have any hope of reaching out to the many non-separatist Catholic voters who recognise the economic realities of their situation and to try to reconnect Ulster to wider British political and cultural life.
Brexit has already demonstrated how collaborating in a pan-UK campaign has started to build new links across the Irish Sea. But that sort of experimentation will take courage, and time, and will risk defeats along the way. Perhaps, if they can be persuaded that the May Government really is the staunchly pro-Union safety net it it says it is, Unionists may finally be able to leave the politics of the Maginot Line behind.