I have been watching with bemusement the car crash that is the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force (which still doesn’t have it’s own web page, despite the election being days away). Leaving aside the unfortunate connotations of a political movement having “Force” in its title, and the almost irresistible urge to mistype the acronym, I remain unconvinced that anything will come of it.
Outside of Bangor, the Conservatives have a dismal record in Northern Ireland. It is clear what they are hoping to get out of a relationship with the UUP, but not what the UUP is hoping to get from them. “Vote for Change” is a good slogan in theory, but if the only real change on offer is a few photographs of David Cameron shaking hands with the same familiar electoral candidates, there’s really nothing much to sell. The UUP has been becalmed for some time, and this smells more like a last gasp than a new beginning.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a great admirer of Cameron. He’s done a fantastic job ridding his party of its uncaring image and making it electable again after the nadir that was Ian Duncan Smith. The Tories remain, however, a minority party beyond the borders of England; too many non-English voters still associate them with opposition to devolution and insensitivity to local issues. Cameron’s new localism has a long fight ahead.
The Tories’ choice of NI partner is not a match made in heaven, rather a least-worst option. The UUP is superficially a centre-right party, but underneath it is a broad church of both left- and right-wingers. The advent of “normal politics” as espoused by UCUNF is already tearing the UUP apart at the seams. Public shows of party disunity will only lead to voters fleeing elsewhere, and the main beneficiary of this will be the DUP. Of course, the DUP is in turn shedding voters to the TUV, in a repeat of the timeworn NI political dance of parties tacking towards the constitutional centre against an outflow of voters.
So if this isn’t change, what would real change be like?
Draw a Line
Firstly, any hypothetical Normal Political Party would have to put the politics of unionism and nationalism behind it. The Alliance Party has been gamely trying to do this for a couple of decades now, but with limited success. This is because politics in Northern Ireland is currently driven by a single factor – the maintenance of equilibrium. Voters see their political enemies moving towards the extreme, and instinctively move to the opposite extreme in order to maintain the balance of power. This is why the DUP makes such a big deal of “thwarting the Sinn Féin agenda” and why SF accuse the DUP of wanting to go back to majority rule. There is thus no incentive for a single party to abandon its position at the extreme, and leads naturally to institutional deadlock and the much-documented hollowing-out of the political centre. The Normal Party must be inventive if it is to avoid falling into this hole.
The UUP survived the Troubles by managing its left-right split to present a common, unionist face. In a future era of Normal Politics a successful Normal Party must invert this formula, managing its unionist-nationalist divisions internally and presenting a common centre-left or -right face. In order for today’s voters to transfer their allegiance to such a party, it must do its utmost to demonstrate that it poses no threat to the established equilibrium. Its principles must therefore include at least the following:
- No change to the current constitutional arrangements – ever The Normal Party will not campaign for constitutional change. The NP must be above suspicion in matters of constitutional change. No mealy-mouthed platitudes about “aspiration towards eventual unity” or dark mutterings about the iniquity of mandatory coalition. The current arrangements are balanced on the head of a pin and the NP must be prepared to fight passionately to maintain that balance.
- The party’s elected representatives will apportion themselves between unionist and nationalist designations in order to maintain a stable ratio in the Assembly, regardless of election results. The individual voter must be assured that transferring his vote from another party will not affect the balance of power in the Assembly. The NP cannot therefore designate itself as “other”, or it will weaken the position of whichever -ism it draws more support from.
- Open primaries. The NP must always fight for the political centre ground, therefore all temptation to swing to extremes must be removed, and must be seen to be removed. Open primaries will ensure that the NP’s candidates best represent the mainstream of popular opinion.
Meat on the Bones
Secondly, the Normal Party must have readily identifiable and principled Normal Policies which contrast those of the competition. As a party seeking to occupy the centre ground, the NP’s major political antitheses will be the DUP and Sinn Féin. Luckily these parties are both easy targets. The NP must be:
- Socially progressive, in contrast with the DUP’s neanderthal and patriarchal instincts.
- Economically liberal, in contrast with Sinn Féin’s near-Communist economic policies.
- Pro-European, in contrast with both of the above. Common EU policies have smoothed over many issues which might otherwise have divided the UK and RoI – a major factor in the Border’s recent loss of significance. If either or both of the UK or RoI were to leave the EU or become semi-detached, the Border would become a problem once more.
- A disbeliever of the zero-sum game. The Good Friday Agreement stated that everyone in NI had the right to consider themselves either British or Irish, and have that choice respected. The NP must encourage the idea, already held by the majority of NI residents, that there is no contradiction in an individual considering himself simultaneously British and Irish, and that perceived gains for one cultural tradition are therefore gains for all.
- A tireless defender of human rights.
Shock and Awe
Finally, the Normal Party must be capable of making significant electoral gains in a short period of time. To do so, it must be both genuinely novel and professionally organised. This means:
- A newcomer to Northern Ireland politics. No makeovers of tired, existing political parties – the NP must be untainted by the politics of the Troubles if it is to make headway into both of the existing political camps.
- …but an experienced player. The NP must immediately inspire confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises – if voters get the impression that a vote for the NP is a wasted vote, the project will be stillborn.
The Conservatives like to think they could be the Normal Party, but they forfeited their chance by aligning themselves with one side of the old political debate. They will inevitably become just another player in Politics as Usual.
So, who will step up to the plate? Who out there has the best prospects of being Northern Ireland’s political White Knight? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’ve drawn mine.