Monday, 8 December 2008

A Rub of the Green: What is Cameron Upto ?

For reasons I don't pretend to understand Cameron is pushing through a formal Tory rapprochement with the all but electorally dead Official Unionist Party. Slugger O'Toole is full of it. Along the way Cameron has given several hostages to fortune, including really problematic statements such as," I'm not neutral on the question of the union." Such statements seem problematic to me because they feed the 'auld ghosts' of the ur-Republican view, rather than move politics onto any kind of a new terrain. I genuinely struggle to see what is in all this for the Tories. So it feels a bit irresponsible to put it mildly.

From a distance, Northern Irish politics seem stuck in a kind of shadow boxing mode. Yes, the guns have been put away - or almost all of them anyway. Yes, we have formal power sharing - when the elected representatives can be bothered to decide they'll talk to each other, which, to be frank, isn't that often. But they really don't seem to talk about the 'elephant on the sofa': the demographic shift.

One of the ironic effects of Direct Rule was that the long term existence of a higher birth rate in the Catholic community actually began to have demographic effect, because the Brits gave more jobs to people from the nationalist communities thus stemming the traditional flow of emigration. The balance now stands at something like 43:57, down from the 1/3rd - 2/3rds split of the 1960s. Some time around 2040 there will be an adult nationalist majority. Followed shortly, one presumes, by a referendum in favour of Irish unity. But when the last British soldier and civil servant leaves there will still be a million people living there who, unless something changes, will be extremely resistant to incorporation into a united Ireland.

In this context Cameron's intervention seems...well a bit bonkers.

I also learned on Slugger that the (British) Labour Party has now authorised the setting up of a NI wide CLP, although this is several steps away from formally standing candidates in any elections in Northern Ireland, which would still require the explicit approval of Labour HQ. This too gives rise to a certain foreboding, although, at a push, I could just about grasp the logic of NI Labour candidates standing in European elections if jointly sponsored by both British and Irish Labour parties, as both sides of the argument over the border seem to approve of EU membership and, indeed, EU links are often touted as one way of decreasing the relative importance of the border in the politics of the North. But even this has to be seen in the context of the existence of the SDLP with its firm (if much diminished) base in one community but not the other. So it could still go very wrong.

In any event, Europe may be a bit of an exception: I can't quite see how a Labour candidate affiliated to the British Labour Party could possibly appeal to both communities in elections to Westminster, Stormont or any local council. & surely it is paving the way for some kind of cross community unity, to minimise the possible consequences of that '2040 moment', that is the big longer term contribution British politicians can make to the future of the North of Ireland.


  1. I'm surprised at this post Charlie - he UUP isn't dead, it's going through a bit of a dip at the moment, but not dead.

    The opportunity for them to re-cast Unionism within a wider conservative framework is one that I think is both canny from their end, and to be welcomed by those of us who aren't conservatives or of a particular unionist bent.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be writing this post with an underlying assumption that being of catholic extraction is almost the same as being nationalist?

    Even when 51% of NI is of catholic extraction, there will always be a fairly high % of them who will not be nationalists or republicans.

    The 51%-nationalist benchmark shows no prospect of ever being met.

  2. Paulie,
    First thanks for responding here rather on your site - though I'm happy to continue the conversation (if that is what it proves to me) in either place.

    Being of catholic extraction is *almost* the same as being a SF or SDLP voter - at least outside the middle classes where the Alliance or Greens may make some headway. Both SF & SDLP favour a united Ireland. I think that makes the community nationalist, at least in formal electoral terms.

    I accept there has always been some poll evidence which suggests identities around 'the border issue' may be more fluid than often thought. But the correlation between religion and preferred constitutional status remains very powerful, and some say quite a lot of those catholics who don't identify as nationalist don't do so precisely because they might not want the province to go back to war on the question, even if they vote SF & SDLP.(I can certainly imagine thinking, if I'd grown up in the North, that the price of unity was simply too high so I'd better make the best of things. My point is that the basis for such a calculation may change with the demographic shift)

    Cameron's move is dangerous because it plays into the republican 'back story' of British imperialism, and thus further polarises the communities. The UUP lost a third of its Stormont reps and a third of its vote at the last Assembly election. They may hang onto their one Westminster seat but are unlikely to increase their haul at the next general election. This is a bit more than just 'going through a rough patch' - it suggests a historic decline. So I can't work out what is in it for the Tories. At minimum, if the do form the next UK government it is going to make it more difficult for them to relate to the nationalist parties.

    I think the fact the shooting has stopped is a good thing. I'd like to keep it that way. That surely means avoiding any further retrenchment of the two communities into their ideological bunkers. Having a mainland British party line-up alongside a party, albeit a declining party, so firmly identified with one side of the argument is a very retrograde step. Retrograde now - but potentially something worse if the majority does change.