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Avoiding Irish entanglements

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The Conservative Party, now in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, no longer needs to rely on the support of Ulster Unionists. This is just as well, because the history of entanglements between Irish and British parties suggests it would have been an unwise move, which the Conservatives narrowly avoided.

In January, Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson convened a secret meeting at Hatfield House, ancestral home of the Marquesses of Salisbury, to try to build a coalition between the Conservatives and the two main varieties of Ulster Unionism, the Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties. Perhaps fortunately for the Tories, the attempt failed spectacularly. News of the meeting quickly leaked. The DUP rejected any deal, and in any case lost its own leader at Westminster, Peter Robinson. The Ulster Unionists, who did agree to a deal, also lost both of their leaders. Sylvia Hermon, their only MP, quit the party and ran, triumphantly, as an Independent in North Down. Sir Reg Empey was defeated by a DUP rival and is expected to resign - if indeed his party survives. Meanwhile, DUP candidates tacked towards the right to see off the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. Northern Ireland has therefore produced a new lineup at Westminster. Disregarding the five Sinn Fein MPs who refuse to take the oath (but were they tempted, during the ultra-hung Parliament?), there are now eight Ulster MPs representing socially conservative Unionism and five representing liberal or social-democratic views. That arithmetic could yet be crucial.

Hatfield House has historic associations that might have warned the Conservatives. Its dominant ghost is the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Prime Minister briefly in 1885-6, then from 1886 to 1892 and 1895 to 1902. He represented the hard right of his day and committed his party to an alliance with Irish Unionists, who were thickest on the ground in Ulster. After his death, his equally hardline but less clever successors, Lord Lansdowne and Andrew Bonar Law, led the Conservative-Unionist alliance into a disastrous near-civil-war in Ireland. They contributed to the tragedy from which Northern Ireland is only now emerging. The Conservative Party came close to repeating Bonar Law's blunder.

Salisbury's Unionism had principled and pragmatic components. The principled one was that all Ireland must forever stay in the UK, because otherwise the British Empire would start to disintegrate. The pragmatic one was memorably expressed by Salisbury's Chancellor, Lord Randolph Churchill: "If the GOM [the "Grand Old Man", William Gladstone] goes for Home Rule, the Orange card will be the card to play. Pray God it turns out to be the ace of trumps and not the two". Lord Randolph's insight is as relevant today as in 1886.

The problem for principled Unionism was that from 1880 until Irish independence in 1921, the nationalist Irish Party sent an unwavering bloc of between 80 and 85 MPs to Westminster with the sole purpose of achieving devolution or independence for Ireland. They would ally with whoever might achieve that. In 1885 Salisbury's minister Lord Carnarvon stitched up an Irish Party-Tory pact with the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell who then issued a "Vote Tory manifesto" to the Irish in Britain. Salisbury repudiated the pact, but this was immediately overshadowed by the greater blunder of Gladstone's son leaking his father's Home rule plans to the media. The problem remained: how could Salisbury simultaneously demand unconditional union and get round those 85 votes in the Commons? Only by using both unelected houses - the Lords and monarch - to defeat the Commons. The unelected houses had a huge unionist majority, but the Lords' veto was removed by the 1911 Parliament Act. The monarch's veto was (just) sidelined by Prime Minister Asquith's firm handling of the ultra-Unionist George V between 1911 and 1914.

The problem with pragmatic Unionism was that the interests of Protestant Ulster and of Tory England are not the same. Tory England has never had a material interest in the rather small Northern Irish economy. Almost nobody outside Northern Ireland is a principled Protestant who sees the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic fellow-citizens as traitors. The Conservative Party is a party of law and order. Ulster Unionists broke the law spectacularly between 1911 and 1914, illegally arming themselves and encouraging the Army mutiny at the Curragh. The available evidence suggests that these shenanigans would have led the Conservatives to their fourth successive electoral defeat, had the General Election gone ahead in 1915.

Nobody is suggesting that the eight DUP MPs of 2010 would encourage paramilitary rebellions or mutinies. But their interests remain passionate and narrow. They were too few, on their own, to make up a Queen's speech majority with either main party. The five social liberals, on the other hand, although they are spread over three parties, made a much more natural fit with bargainers from other parties seeking to create a Queens Speech majority. The Conservative-Unionist alliance turned out to be the two of trumps and not the ace. Fortunately for David Cameron, it was a hand he did not have to play.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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