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A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Adding to Ulster’s Party Panoply

Tim Montgomerie’s ConservativeHome website reports that the Conservative & Unionist Party is setting up its own party in Northern Ireland, following the failure of its collaboration with the Ulster Unionist Party. At the last election, the Tories ran a joint ticket with the UUP under the name ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force’ which fell rather flat.

In the years before the party system was as solidly formalised as it now is, Unionist MPs took the Conservative whip at Westminster but today the SDLP is the only Northern Irish party which takes the whip of a British party (in its case, Labour). Gradually official Unionists found themselves increasingly challenged by upstarts, which evolved into the formal division between the Ulster Unionist Party (moderate liberal-conservative unionists) and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (hardcore conservative unionists).

The decision to start a separate Conservative & Unionist party for Ulster is a curious one, as it can only further split the Unionist vote, already divided between the dominant DUP and the fading UUP. This is at least simpler than in the 1990s and 2000s, when the vote split between these two and smaller Unionist groupings like the UK Unionists, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Ulster Democratic Party, and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party.

My favourite Unionist Party, however, was that which dominated the political scene in the Punjab from the First World War until Partition. It was primarily the instrument of the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh gentry of the province, and counted three holders of knighthoods — Sardar Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, Sir Fazli Husain, and Rao Bahadur Sir Chhotu Ram — among its founders. Alas, with the increasing enmity between the Hindu and Muslim populations of India, its existence became unsustainable, and even the Punjab Province itself was split between Pakistan and India at independence. Sic transit gloria mundi!

This post was published on Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 8:00 pm. It has been categorised under Ireland Politics and been tagged under , .
2 Feb 2012 7:48 am

Splitting the Unionist vote further hardly bothers me: as unsympathetic as I am to republicanism of any kind, the history of British colonialism in Ireland is filled with such injustice that I cannot favour the heirs to that legacy.

Ideally, of course, Ireland would be related to the other nations of the British Isles under a common monarch- the heir to James II.

5 Feb 2012 5:20 am

Gabriel, ironically it was James II’s grandfather (James I – himself a Stuart!) who commissioned the Plantation of Ulster with Protestant colonists from England and the Scottish lowlands. Those ‘planters’ are by and large the ancestors of modern Ulster Protestants. (The Irish Catholic Church was also viciously persecuted throughout most of James’ reign.) One can also draw parallels between the conduct in Ireland of Cromwell and Charles I’s Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth. I certainly have no nostalgia for the Stuarts, whose policy in Ireland was probably more cruel and oppressive than the Hanoverian monarchs.

I agree with the need to maintain good relations between Ireland and Britain (or perhaps eventually with an independent Scotland, Wales and England) and this is already expressed institutionally through the British-Irish Council — which includes the RoI, the UK, the devolved governments, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles. Any arrangement more intimate than that strikes me as unacceptable (and instituting a monarchy in Ireland of any description is simply out of the question) and if it were made a condition of the re-unification of this island, I would turn it down. Good fences make good neighbours!

Back to the post itself – in the long run, whether the unionist vote is split or not shouldn’t really matter to unionists since, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a constitutional change in Northern Ireland’s status can only be effected by means of a referendum. Even if in theory SF and the SDLP won all the seats, Northern Ireland would still remain within the union. Indeed unionists could have much to gain from a diversity of unionist parties because it might help contribute to the normalization of Northern Irish politics. (The obsession with the border is silly and counter-productive, given that NI’s status is already quite secure.)

5 Feb 2012 6:12 pm

Shane, I think one must distinguish between the policies of James I and Charles I on the one hand, and their sons Charles II and James II on the other. While the last generation of Stuarts were certainly left much to be desired, their policy was decidedly the most benign of any government from the reign of Henry VIII through that of George II.

That being said, ideals are not always practicable, and while the historic sympathy of the exiled Jacobites with Ireland might do much to mend the breach, it is nonetheless the case that Ireland neither wants nor needs any political arrangement with England, even to the extent of sharing a sovereign. In respect of Ireland I become nearly a republican.

6 Feb 2012 12:03 am

“it is nonetheless the case that Ireland neither wants nor needs any political arrangement with England, even to the extent of sharing a sovereign”

Gabriel, I agree. I actually have no problem in principle with either monarchism or republicanism but ultimately I think the particular form of government suitable to a country will vary, depending on its history, circumstances, conditions, culture, etc. I can entirely understand ‘Altar and Throne’ attitudes among French Catholic traditionalists but I think it would be a nonsense to graft that onto an Irish context, where the historical circumstances are very different. When I think of a traditional Catholic society, I think of (and pine for!) the devout peasant society of 1950’s Ireland, not ancien régime Versailles. Certainly the idea of a ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ does not appeal to me at all. And I feel nostalgic for little in the British administration of Ireland (for me the tragic turning point in Irish history was the Battle of Kinsale, not the Battle of the Boyne.)

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