I’m very encouraged to note that Margaret Ritchie and her team at the SDLP has rejected overtures from Sinn Fein to form an electoral pact for certain target marginal constituencies in the upcoming general election. Should such a pact be put in place it would almost certainly result in the SDLP retaining South Belfast and Sinn Fein retaining Fermanagh South Tyrone.
The SDLP’s decision to reject such an overture shows that it recognises a clear constitutional difference between itself and Sinn Fein. That difference, of course, is clear to see – in that Sinn Fein has had a rather shorter tenure as a constitutional, non-violent, political organisation. The SDLP seems to be coming to terms with Northern Ireland as a political entity – and its role within it. It seems keen to be seen as an honest broker.
The same cannot be said of the UUP – or, rather, the dysfunctional, rudderless factions that the UUP has become. The largest of these factions is getting increasingly close to the DUP – aided and abetted by the Conservative Party. It seems increasingly likely that if the UUP receives little support at the general election for its ‘new force’ with the Conservatives – which wouldn’t be surprising given the lack-lustre line-up of candidates – it will quickly enter into some type of partnership with the DUP for the Assembly elections. The alternative will be electoral annihilation.
I’d hope that the SDLP might be rewarded for acting on principle. However, the consequence, in Fermanagh South Tyrone will almost certainly be the election of a candidate that is being offered to the electorate as non-sectarian – but who is a pawn in a highly sectarian selection process defined by the DUP, UUP and Conservative Party.
I was one of the earliest members of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship for Northern Ireland – over 20 years ago. Along with several of the people currently involved in the Conservative Party here, I sat on the CEC Executive alongside fellow Conservatives (like Barbara Finney and Laurence Kennedy) as well as Socialists like Boyd Black.
I was also the first Chairman of the (Model) Lagan Valley Conservative Association before it was officially recognised by Conservative Central Office.
We established the Conservative Party here specifically because it was NOT the UUP or DUP. It represented something different and non-sectarian. It was about transplanting the politics of the tribe with the politics of the United Kingdom. For twenty years the Conservative Party has been organised here. But it has never actively sought a mandate to govern Northern Ireland in all those years.
The end game was never about a merger with an orange-steeped, sectarian Party. It was always about the Conservative Party, Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Parties actively organising here and seeking to govern this place properly. It was also about participative democracy.
It was not about about a UUP re-spray.
Mr Nicholson’s campaign posters are note-worthy as the only ones that don’t bear a Party logo. The UUP agreed to the Now For Change ‘badge’ but couldn’t actually countenance using the Conservative Party branding and logo.
People say to me that the UUP’s conversion is a gradual process. Frankly I don’t care. We have missed a great chance to transform Northern Ireland’s politics and democracy. The project, as far as I was concerned, was about establishing mainstream Conservatism here, with the national Party’s commitment to seeking a mandate.
But, frankly, the CEC’s work is far from complete. It has hardly even begun.