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.