For a debate to exist, there must be at least two sides.
Seymour Major laments that with the UCUNF project on its knees, he is left without a political home. The Alliance Party fits his non-sectarian principles, but not his conservatism. Jeff Peel expresses similar sentiments. After years of neglect, and after being made junior partners in their own political project, local Conservative activists were finally betrayed by their national leadership at Hatfield House, and several potential candidates walked. If normal politics is to survive in Northern Ireland, there can be no repeat of that experience.
The way to change politics in Northern Ireland is to shift the focus of political debate. The sectarian parties have been able to set the agenda by concentrating the debate on issues that suit them. Bread and butter issues such as the economy, education and public services have their airtime squeezed by the endless posturing of identity politics. The Alliance Party has struggled to make itself heard over the noise, and too often allows itself to be drawn into the middle of the sectarian argument, fighting on two fronts.
In order for the political debate in NI to be freed from the stranglehold of sectarianism, another debate must take its place – one which concentrates on bread and butter issues. And for a debate to exist, there must be at least two sides. It may seem paradoxical, but the way to boost the non-sectarian centre ground is to divide it into left and right and ramp the argument up to full volume.
The missing element in this picture is a centre-right equivalent of Alliance, and that’s where our disillusioned Conservative friends come in. They are potentially the core of a new political party – let’s call it the People’s Party after similar ones in other European countries. It would be independent of the Conservatives, although it could ally with them in Westminster in the same way that the Bavarian CSU does with the CDU in Germany. Complementing that arrangement, it would also build links with Fine Gael to co-ordinate policy on cross-border issues. But at its heart it would be a middle-NI party, committed to standing up for the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist alike.
Yes, it would be the natural political home of the garden centre Prod and the Catholic unionist, but only a fool would count on them turning out on polling day. The People’s Party should seek to maximise its potential support – targeting middle- and working-class households, on both sides of the divide. Naomi Long has proved that cross-community parties can garner broad support if they field committed, hard-working candidates. A strong People’s Party with talented members should encourage Alliance to up their game, and vice versa, allowing a mature left-right political debate to evolve. I am convinced that once Northern Ireland voters get a taste of such a debate they will find the sterile us-versus-them politics of the past much less impressive.