Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the spot: Neil Johnston, NI Conservatives.

In what I hope will be the first of a regular feature on here, Neil Johnston, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, has very kindly agreed to answer my questions on the party’s attitude towards the Union and devolution, both in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom generally:

1. You live in Northern Ireland; why are you a Conservative and not a “Democratic” or Ulster Unionist?

Unionism of the type espoused by the Democratic or Ulster Unionist parties long ago degenerated into the politics of tribal headcounting. They are largely exclusive – if you share their ethnic, religious, social and culture outlook you are ‘one of us’ if not you are to be treated with distrust.

This type of unionism thrives on division and needs politics to remain within what David Trimble called the ‘nationalist framework of reference’. In their world NI politics is always about unionism v nationalism – a world where they are about to be betrayed by ‘the British’ and they dream about a hung Parliament in which they can sell their vote in the mother of Parliaments to the highest bidder.

Conservatism is about inclusive politics. The Party is the main centre right party of the UK which welcomes all who espouse its values regardless of religion, ethnic background or whatever. It seeks ‘unity in diversity’ of the British identity and even tolerates those who want to be part of the UK and maintain beliefs and identities that are at odds with British values. It is a unionist party in the NI context because it believes this is the best constitutional position for everyone who lives in NI and it recognises that the Union has had and continues to have 2 to 1 support in NI. It respects those with other opinions.
Fundamentally it does not accept that the Irish and British identities are mutually exclusive which is essentially the thinking that underlies much Irish nationalism.

2. The Conservatives are the only party with fully operational branches in all four parts of the UK. How much contact do you have with your fellow Tories in England, Scotland and Wales and how much autonomy do you have from Central Office?

The simple answer is not enough. We have strong links with the centre in London and many friends in Scotland and throughout England. I am hopeful that when we appoint our first member of staff in NI in the next few months that we can radically strengthen these links.

The Shadow Secretary of State Owen Paterson is in NI nearly every week and we liaise with him on a very regular basis.
We have complete autonomy on devolved matters e.g. on education we happen to be strongly pro grammar school.
The Leadership shares our belief that national politics and hence the Conservative party has a role to play in transforming politics in NI.

3. Has devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales strengthened or weakened the Union?

I personally was opposed to devolution but have come round to the opinion held by David Trimble and other that devolution per se is not necessarily detrimental to the Union. The absence of UK parties in NI weakens the Union. The jury on devolution is in many ways still out.

4. David Cameron, at the Scottish Conservatives Conference warned that the Union had never been in more danger and "the ugly stain of separatism is seeping through the Union flag"; what is the best way we, as UK Unionists, can prevent that stain from spreading?

I think that we must play an active part in UK parties. I genuinely believe the involvement of Conservatives in NI in the Conservative Party has significantly altered the opinion of the membership of the Party over time - including those who are now at the top. As in many things in life we form our opinions about subjects we don’t directly know a lot about from friends and associates with whom we share similar beliefs. Hence English Tories listen to the opinions of their fellow Tories form NI.
Being active in the Tory party – or persuading the Labour and Liberal parties to stop discriminating against NI is the best thing a UK Unionist can do. Blogging or joining fringe parties is at best pointless.

5. Let’s move forward to 2010. We will, in all probability, still have Irish, Scottish, Ulster and Welsh nationalists in charge in the three devolved assemblies and a Conservative Government under Cameron, brought to power at Westminster almost exclusively by English, not N.Irish, Scottish or Welsh votes. Taking those two likelihood’s into consideration, what kind of Union do you think will we be looking at in 2015?

This is one of the big questions of our times and I’m not sure I an qualified to provide an full answer, however, central to it must be the creation of a new Barnett formula that is accurately based on need and the extra costs involved in running Scotland, Wales and NI. This formula must be recognised as accurate by the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties – including their various autonomous ‘bits’ as being fair and they must then unite to ridicule the nationalist bleatings. It couldn’t be done by the Tory party alone.
At the same time we must learn to live with difference. Whinging about ‘postcode lotteries’ and over generous provision is a product of the idea that everything must be uniform.
We must get to a situation where everyone believes funding is fair and accepts the right of parliament/assemblies and county and district councils, etc to decide locally what they want to provide.
(This would also require a funding of local government finance that was much more transparent ie money was raised locally and spent locally rather than the present system of huge grants.)

I would like to thank Neil for taking the time and effort to provide such detailed responses; the Northern Ireland Conservatives’ blog can be read here.

7 comments:

Chekov said...

“Unionism of the type espoused by the Democratic or Ulster Unionist parties long ago degenerated into the politics of tribal head-counting. They are largely exclusive – if you share their ethnic, religious, social and culture outlook you are ‘one of us’ if not you are to be treated with distrust.”

I certainly don’t identify the politics of the UUP in that description. The truth is that the Conservatives only manage to avoid the ‘tribal’ aspect by having so few members. If the party gets bigger it will draw its members and voters mainly from the unionist community and can then equally be labelled ‘exclusive’.

”This type of unionism thrives on division and needs politics to remain within what David Trimble called the ‘nationalist framework of reference’.”

Except when David Trimble was actually working within a Northern Irish frame of political reference, rather than that of mainland Britain, he was in the Ulster Unionist Party.

“In their world NI politics is always about unionism v nationalism – a world where they are about to be betrayed by ‘the British’ and they dream about a hung Parliament in which they can sell their vote in the mother of Parliaments to the highest bidder.”

That is not what unionism is about in my understanding. Unionism is about maintaining the Union, and that is one of the most pivotal matters in UK politics at the present time. If the Northern Ireland Tories wish to remain above that constitutional arena, by heaping derision on a political ethos which put the Union at its centre, then they are not properly addressing a central issue in UK politics. Of course that is in keeping with their leader who wishes to ride both the unionist and the ‘little Englander’ nationalist horse at the same time.

“It is a unionist party in the NI context because it believes this is the best constitutional position for everyone who lives in NI and it recognises that the Union has had and continues to have 2 to 1 support in NI. It respects those with other opinions.”

But it is not prepared to designate itself a unionist party should (by some miracle) a member reach the NI Assembly. Its leader is equivocal on the Union and its strength in Westminster is drawn almost exclusively from England.

“Fundamentally it does not accept that the Irish and British identities are mutually exclusive which is essentially the thinking that underlies much Irish nationalism.”

The Irish and British identities certainly shouldn’t be accepted as mutually exclusive. That is the bedrock of current Ulster Unionist thinking..


“The simple answer is not enough.”

In other words the much vaunted involvement in national politics does not exist and neither is it likely to any time soon.

Chekov said...

"a world where they are about to be betrayed by ‘the British’"

Or more specifically by the Tory government who can't be trusted not to unilaterally impose constitutional changes without consent. just ask DT!

wildgoose said...

"Of course that is in keeping with their leader who wishes to ride both the unionist and the ‘little Englander’ nationalist horse at the same time."

Garbage.

Cameron has explicitly talked about the "Scottish blood in his veins" and how he will stand up to the "sour little Englanders". He has also explicitly declared that he "doesn't want to be Prime Minister of England". Which suits us just fine.

Toque said...

Does the "extra costs" involved in running Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland include paying for a separate parliament/assembly, government and civil service.

Why should the English subsidise that?

In fact, why should the English subsidise at all under a system such as the Barnett Formula? It is the Barnett Formula that provides the excuse for non-English MPs to vote on English legislation, simply because it determines the devolved budgets as a proportion of English spending. It should be scrapped and the finances of each nation should be ring-fenced, and preferrably raised through taxation in that territory to increase political accountability on fiscal matters.

Anonymous said...

In response to Chekov

�I certainly don�t identify the politics of the UUP in that description.�
I sure you don�t � neither do many UUP members but that is certainly the perception. The continuation of six county unionism will only maintain the identification of unionism with Ulster Protestantism. This type of unionism is counter productive � why wouldn�t you want to be part of the UK political mainstream? The difference is that we seek support on the basis of a broad centre right UK agenda � many unionists seek support and seek to serve only the �unionist community� which for many is a euphemism for the Ulster Protestant community. This plays into nationalists hands.

�Except when David Trimble was actually working within a Northern Irish frame of political reference, rather than that of mainland Britain, he was in the Ulster Unionist Party�
But was making repeated references for the need to change politics and to move into the mainstream. Now he is continually suggesting the time for change might be now.

�Unionism is about maintaining the Union� obviously but did what the DUP did last week actually make their fellow MPs, Conservatives, Labour and other look more favourably on the Union or Northern Ireland? You appear to be implying that we should form a UK wide Unionist party or perhaps Unionist parties in Eng, Scot and Wales? The strongest way to defend the Union is by strong UK parties that focus on the economic and social politics of that Union. Have you ever wondered why � despite all the difficulties for example in Scotland that unionists in Scotland have not decided merging the Tories, Lab and Libs into one Scottish Unionist party it would not only be self defeating but it would play into the hands of separatists.

�not prepared to designate itself a unionist party� The system of designation is self defeating. Your attempt to use this issue to prove you are �better unionists� is laughable. No unionist should defend designation as it is sectarianism by another name.

�the much vaunted involvement in national politics does not exist�
Actually it does I am in almost daily contact with the our Shadow Secretary of State. Over time we have built up many strong friendships throughout the Party. Your alternative? Yourselves alone?

And finally
�Or more specifically by the Tory government who can't be trusted not to unilaterally impose constitutional changes without consent�
So given a choice to work within the Conservative Party in an attempt to shape approach and policy or staying outside you would chose outside? Those who attack the Tories for mistakes like the Anglo Irish Agreement should remember that at that time unionist MPs held 15 of the 18 seats � to no avail. Also at that time the party had no members in NI and did not see a role for itself in Northern Ireland � this has changed. Surely you would accept this is a good thing?

Chekov said...

“The continuation of six county unionism will only maintain the identification of unionism with Ulster Protestantism.”

Unionism will continue to be associated with Ulster Protestantism whether it is represented by Northern Irish parties or not. That is not to say that there isn’t a duty for unionists to attempt to expand their appeal, but the Conservative Party has no more chance of becoming attractive nationalist Catholics than does the Ulster Unionist Party. Indeed it is perhaps more foreign to them.

“This type of unionism is counter productive � why wouldn�t you want to be part of the UK political mainstream?”

The NI Tories are not part of the UK political mainstream.

“The difference is that we seek support on the basis of a broad centre right UK agenda � many unionists seek support and seek to serve only the �unionist community� which for many is a euphemism for the Ulster Protestant community. This plays into nationalists hands.”

And many unionists do not seek to serve only the ‘unionist community’. I am a recalcitrant opponent of communal politics.

“But was making repeated references for the need to change politics and to move into the mainstream. Now he is continually suggesting the time for change might be now.”

He wished Ulster Unionists to move into the mainstream. The NI Tories cannot even aspire to move into the UK political mainstream because they are not a mainstream party in Northern Ireland. In order to effect change the best way is to attempt to move Ulster Unionism into close alignment with UK politics. To support the NI Tories is frankly to piss in the wind.

“You appear to be implying that we should form a UK wide Unionist party or perhaps Unionist parties in Eng, Scot and Wales?”

That is not what I am implying. I have no compunction in stating that unionist parties should cooperate across the various constituent parts of the Union.

“The strongest way to defend the Union is by strong UK parties that focus on the economic and social politics of that Union.”

And neither Labour nor the Tories are actually doing this. In fact to deal specifically with the Conservatives under Cameron, they have made contradictory and equivocal statements about the Union. O’Neill has charted them very ably on this particular blog. Unionists place the Union at the centre of their politics, and are unlikely to join a party unless they are confident in that party’s unionist credentials.

“Have you ever wondered why � despite all the difficulties for example in Scotland that unionists in Scotland have not decided merging the Tories, Lab and Libs into one Scottish Unionist party it would not only be self defeating but it would play into the hands of separatists.”
And neither should all unionist parties in Northern Ireland merge. I haven’t suggested that they should. I do believe it is important that all those Scottish parties register their opposition to the Scots nationalist project and offer a united front on that issue.

“No unionist should defend designation as it is sectarianism by another name.”

It is part of the system of government which has been endorsed by a majority of people in a referendum and which is accepted by all mainstream parties in Northern Ireland. It is not sectarian for a party to be clear and unequivocal about its constitutional position.

“Actually it does I am in almost daily contact with the our Shadow Secretary of State. Over time we have built up many strong friendships throughout the Party. Your alternative? Yourselves alone?”

Not at all. Close involvement in UK political life bringing the unique perspective of Ulster Unionism to that involvement.

“Those who attack the Tories for mistakes like the Anglo Irish Agreement should remember that at that time unionist MPs held 15 of the 18 seats � to no avail. Also at that time the party had no members in NI and did not see a role for itself in Northern Ireland � this has changed. Surely you would accept this is a good thing?”

The party now has a nominal presence in Northern Ireland and to all intents and purposes does not see a serious role for itself in Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party enjoyed a great deal of sympathy amongst unionists at the time of the AIA and the largest unionist party enjoyed a close relationship with the Tory party. Those ties were to no avail.

Until we reach a position where all three mainstream UK parties organise in Northern Ireland with serious intent and show themselves unambiguously convicted to defend the Union, then the best home for unionists in Northern Ireland is still the Ulster Unionist Party.

Anonymous said...

Chekov You sound like a Conservative and open minded supporter of the Union - but on many of your points you are simply wrong most notably your opinion

'to all intents and purposes does not see a serious role for itself in Northern Ireland.'

However I will not convince you of this via a blog.
Your final statement about remained UUP until ALL 3 UK parties are here is a protest too much methinks.