I notified the North Down Conservative Association of my intention to resign as a member Saturday week ago, effective from midnight the following Thursday. I have long sought the most effective vehicle to pursue and deliver effective mainstream, non-sectarian and responsible politics in Northern Ireland. Despite best intentions, the Conservatives lack the political space and capacity to deliver this.
Despite the name, the UCUNF project offered a real opportunity to change NI politics for the good. That is why I tried to make it work even after the General Election, against my own better instincts and taking risks to do so. That opportunity has been squandered, primarily by inaction by some in each party’s leaderships. The Conservatives should long ago have been honest that they could not afford to take the serious political action required to seek an electoral mandate in NI given the current political and economic situation here; they should also have recognised months ago that the new Ulster Unionist Party lacks any commitment to the “mainstream, non-sectarian” politics to which the Secretary of State has rightly committed himself. Serious questions have to be asked about the advice received in senior party circles which still leaves them publicly committed to supporting the Ulster Unionists at the forthcoming elections into late November!
The Conservatives and Unionists project offered at least the hope that two large blocks (UCUNF and the Alliance Party) would in future compete with each other on the basis of common assumptions on the need for anti-sectarian, mainstream politics. As such, both would have promoted a type of politics more relevant to the electorate and to the issues which concern them (the economy, health, education etc), presenting a real choice and thus growing the centre ground and the number of people voting for parties which were not only defined as non-sectarian, but which rejected the sectarian spectrum altogether. Had UCUNF even won two seats in May, that would have been two MPs on the government benches and one on the opposition benches from NI who accepted and promoted the need for anti-sectarian, mainstream politics – a signficant and healthy change, and in fact the ultimate outworking of what the Alliance Party was founded to achieve.
In the current Secretary of State, NI has probably the most passionate advocate at the cabinet table it has ever had. However, over my time in the party, it was apparent to me that the Conservative Party centrally can neither prioritise NI electorally in such a way as to shape its politics away from sectarianism (despite, in fairness, a clear intention to do so), nor resist toying with the idea of short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy. What has been particularly frustrating is the inability of too many key players to separate fiction from fact with regard to NI politics – the post-election period, in particular, required Conservative intervention to maintain the values of UCUNF and support its candidates going forward (while improving the delivery of the project), but even those of us initially prepared publicly to attempt to justify the Conservatives’ inaction (at their request) found any kind of support unavailable. As such, all the demonstrable evidence is that any Conservative candidate in NI (at any level) will permanently be hamstrung by the potential for their campaigns to be poisoned by sectarianism and infighting locally, and by the requirement for “neutrality” with regard to NI on behalf of Conservative actors nationally. Having seen it with my own eyes, I cannot advise anyone to invest their own time and money into campaigning in such circumstances.
Specifically, I have found that senior Conservatives in London (not Owen Paterson in Hillsborough, who has always been most approachable) have always been keen to meet with donors, but less keen to meet with, or even speak to, potential candidates. Ultimately, it is the candidate who is selected who puts his/her name before the electorate; it is the candidate whose reputation was on the line; it is the candidate who takes the brickbats from anonymous blog commenters with nothing better to do. Thus, it is the candidate who needed to be convinced of the Conservatives’ good faith that they would enter the forthcoming elections with the clear intent of a 20-year strategy to build the party as a vehicle for mainstream, non-sectarian politics in NI come what may. Even though I suspect the funding will be made available for some kind of electoral attempt, I am not convinced the true political will exists to build something which will last into the long term as a true means of advocating and promoting effectively mainstream, non-sectarian politics. In fact, no one in the leadership has even spoken to me to attempt to convince me!
People will ask was it a political mistake for me to do what I did. I have explained above that, had the UCUNF project worked out the way I wanted it to (which was always a long shot I confess), I feel that both the Conservative and Alliance Parties would have gained from it – as would, more importantly, all those in NI who feel disconnected from politics and want something to vote for, rather than against. It has also been a great learning experience to work with the Centre for Social Justice (some aspects of which are ongoing), with the current Secretary of State who has demonstrated such a commitment to this part of the world, and with the great people in the North Down Conservative Association who, I write with great reluctance, have been badly let down by some in their own party and were extremely kind to me even when I discussed this disappointing move, from their point of view, with their senior representatives.
I can say that I was greatly sorry about the manner of my departure from the Alliance Party, which I mishandled, and for any hurt I caused those who had campaigned for me just months before. For this I can now unreservedly apologise. Those close to me will be aware of the great upset it caused me to leave the party, but particularly to do so in a manner which gave those within it any cause for anger or regret.
Certainly, I was always aware David Ford’s “blind alley” may prove prescient – and so it did! However, I would add as a note to my bona fides that I invested significant time and effort into setting the foundation for that party’s now flourishing youth organisation, point out that had I not stood for Europe the party may well not have stood at all (and the platform for future progress was the party’s, not mine), and add that never once did I offer any criticism of the party, whose representatives and members I still held in high regard and with which I have been proud to be associated.
Put simply, I regret not one second of my time spent in and with the Alliance Party, whereas I do regret wasting so much time and effort unproductively on the seriously flawed UCUNF project. It is no doubt partly on the basis of how highly I spoke about the Alliance Party, even after I had left it, that my own parents chose to remain members, and that my partner has just become one.
What I have learned most of all from this is that politics is not just about good intentions and policies, it is about competence and capacity to deliver. Many people I have worked with over the past year had the best intentions. Few, however, had the competence or capacity to deliver on any of it. I intend to spend some time as an independent actor to enable me to throw ideas out into the political arena without those being associated with any single party. I will continue, broadly, to support the Coalition Government (which needs all the support it can get in NI political circles) on UK-wide matters. However, on the grounds of a real commitment to ‘mainstream, non-sectarian politics’, and the competence and capacity to deliver on some of it, my first preference vote at the 2011 Assembly Election will go to the same party it went to in 1998, 2003 and 2007.
Please note, there are serious issues going on in the world and, on the general scale of things, this isn’t remotely one of them! I will not be making any further comment beyond that which appears here.