Cameron fails to move unionism forward

Damian O'Loan
8 December 2008

Damian O'Loan (Paris): David Cameron was on the offensive in his speech to the Ulster Unionist Party conference on Saturday. This was a bold speech, bordering on reckless. His stated ambitions for the pact are mass appeal, consolidating the Union and Northern Irish participation at cabinet level. It repairs a split dating from the Thatcher era. He failed, however, to outline what exactly it will mean in terms of decision-making processes, policy and message, and concerns about impartiality prior to the speech, noted here by Tom Griffin, appear well-founded.

He openly courted nationalists and those voters for whom the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is insignificant, but went on to repeatedly refer to the benefits of Westminster rule, to say “together we have the British military, one of the most respected armed forces in the world”, and called opposition to the union “sectarian.” This was seemingly a return to a unionism that has not been practised since before the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

His mission is to attract voters and activists for whom 'real' politics – health, education, economy – has been subsumed by sectarian battles. To do this, he declares that with the agreements the constitutional situation is “settled” and that we can forget about it. Further, those who do not are “sectarian”. This is a fundamental misrepresentation of the agreements, using an approach that denies even John Major's contribution.
The nature of consociationalism is that it allows the respective parties full expression and the right to seek their objectives democratically. Thus, nationalists want a stability that leads to consolidated ties with the South, then peacefully to an eventual united Ireland. The agreements legislate to support the right to hold this position, specifically outlawing discrimination on those grounds in public and private life. Cameron, in denying its legitimacy, has either not done his homework, or got carried away with his words. He will not command confidence as a broker between Sinn Féin and the DUP, as Blair once did.

He spoke of a “fight against terrorism” that was the shared struggle of “unionists and democrats everywhere. We're all in it together and we all came through it together.” What might this simplistic caricature mean, for example, to the McConville family, whose mother was abducted and disappeared in a republican area by the IRA, perhaps having tended to an injured soldier. At what point did unionism decide to exclude nationalism from its definition of 'victims' of terrorism? What does this do for the increasing number of Irish enrolling in the British army? The trouble is, this is not in fact the official Conservative position, nor is it the Ulster Unionists'.

It was populist rhetoric, wrapped in a Union Jack, touting the global might of Britannia - “we're listened to in a way that other countries can only dream of.” This is considered distasteful even to those neutrals Cameron apparently expects to respond with votes. It is inappropriate at a time when it is painfully clear that the real emergencies require global responses; he wouldn't have done it in London. While boasting of influence in Europe, the next Prime Minister did not mention whether British membership of the EU would indeed be put to referendum. A joint candidate, on an as-yet unnamed ticket, in next year's election will be the first shared project.

Jim Nicholson MEP will be standing for re-election. No detail was provided on what changes this would mean to the campaign, his positions or his manifesto. Deals with the fundamentalist wing of unionism may or may not be off the table. The differences in policy between the two parties were not mentioned. The only UUP MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon's Labour-friendly voting record was also taboo. Cameron will not look forward to the next abortion debate and his position on academic selection at 11 becomes relevant. This superficial approach was shared by UUP leader Reg Empey. His authority as the party's decision-maker is undermined by his predecessor Lord Trimble's role in the marriage, while the latter's expected ministerial
will continue to damage it.

This move risks dividing unionism, but that is a necessary step on the road to any Ulster Unionist recovery. It is of no interest to nationalism, indeed it makes the timing of the Maria Gatland affair seem suspicious. It offers no new ideas, only re-packaged direct-rule implemented in a style that has learned from
the cabinet reforms of New Labour, Sarkozy and Berlusconi. If the tone of the message is not softened, it will, as Trevor Smith has noted, only add to the sectarianism that it claims to move beyond. Blair undeniably understood Northern Ireland's sensitivities and reaped the rewards. Cameron will have to work harder to emulate his success.

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