The Conservatives have not been returned to represent Northern Ireland since the Ulster Unionists gradually withdrew from the Party in the 1970s and 1980s. But they once came close.
In 1992, Dr Laurence Kennedy won more than 14,000 votes in the constituency of North Down, placing second behind James Kilfedder, the long-term independent and later Popular Unionist incumbent.
Alas, the rest of the decade treated the Tories no more kindly in Ulster than elsewhere. By the time of the 1995 by-election the moment had definitely passed; even though the seat returned an integrationist (Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party), the Tory vote slumped to just 583 votes.
Since then, the Party’s general election vote has seldom strayed above triple digits. But North Down remains the place where a breakthrough for the NI Conservatives seems most likely. It compasses a prosperous part of the Province and, with a negligible nationalist vote, is perhaps the seat where conditions are most like those on the mainland.
Moreover, it has a long history of going its own way, returning a string of either independents or MPs from one-MP parties, from Kilfedder and McCartney to Lady Sylvia Hermon and, most recently, Stephen Farry of the Alliance. It also returned a few Tory councillors once upon a time.
This seems to be why the Party has decided to focus all its efforts on North Down in this year’s Stormont elections.
From what ConservativeHome has been told, there will not this year be the usual slate of paper candidates. Instead the only Tory candidate in May will be Matt Robinson.
I’m running as the Conservative & Unionist candidate for North Down in the Assembly Election
I want to be the pragmatic, pro-business, liberal voice that it so lacking in our politics
— Matthew Robinson (@matrobinson) March 28, 2022
Robinson fought the Westminster constituency in 2019, where he picked up almost 2,000 votes – the Conservatives’ best showing as an independent force since Kennedy’s in 1992. It almost certainly won’t be enough to pick up an MLA slot – the last-placed winner in 2017 received over 5,000 first preference votes. But name recognition ought to allow him to exceed the 641 picked up by the Tory in that contest.
Not everyone thinks contesting this year’s Assembly elections is a good use of resources; some would prefer that local activists started laying the groundwork now for next year’s council elections. But the broad plan seems to be the same: focus on one seat and work it over the long term.
It will be interesting to see if the NI Conservatives have the discipline to stick to such a strategy: it is very easy for small organisations to get dragged off course by demands for ego-salving candidacies and literature runs.
But having squandered the chance to short-cut their way into the Assembly via defections during the NI21 debacle, it is the right approach. Such seat-by-seat discipline is, for example, a big part of why reason why the Conservatives managed to rebuild their local government position in Salford whilst remaining on zero councillors in neighbouring Manchester.
Either way, we wish Matthew the very best of luck.