English Tories and the union

21 Apr 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Apr 2017

Theresa May.

Back in 2006 the then Secretary of State Peter Brooke said that his government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” 

The calling of a General Election in the middle of the Stormont crisis suggests that these days the British government no longer has interest in the place at all. 

The Conservative Party was once so proudly unionist that it was prepared to sanction treason in support of the Ulster Unionists during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14.

Its leader Andrew Bonar Law famously said: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”

Today the Conservative Party is still in favour of the union, but it is very much an English party. Its core support is from English nationalists many of whom have no such enthusiasm: they who have little regard for Northern Ireland and apparent contempt for Scotland and its citizens.  

For Theresa May gaining a bigger majority to better manage the exit from the European Union is the only show in town.

She may well talk of unity, but surely knows that she is inflaming Scottish grievances, and that Northern Ireland is now condemned to a prolonged period of uncertainty, from which it may never emerge.

Conservative-supporting media regularly vilify SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon whose name May conjured in her electoral rallying call. It is increasingly common for Tories to wish Scotland was gone. A poll last month showed 30% of them would prefer if Scotland were to leave the union. Last year a petition calling for Scotland to be thrown out of the union gained massive publicity.

If Scotland were to leave the union there would be plenty of Conservatives who would be secretly delighted and more still openly so.

As to Northern Ireland: when Mrs May took that famous walk in Snowdonia to contemplate whether or not to go to the polls it is most unlikely that any stage she glanced far to the west and thought of here.

If she did, she did not seem to trouble Secretary of State James Brokenshire with the news. His office appeared oblivious first thing on Tuesday morning.

Yet as was the case with regard to the Brexit, her decision has much more profound effects here than anywhere else in the UK. We’re in deep crisis with no Executive. Brokenshire was hoping to corral local politicians into doing a deal, and resisting calls for a fresh election.

It’s hard for him to hold the line on this now. You can’t say on the one hand that local politicians who are in crisis can’t have an election whilst the national government which isn’t can. You can’t move to direct rule when your own government is about to stand down. And you can’t expect politicians to be reasonable to each other when they are gearing up for a General Election.

The longer our crisis lasts the more difficult it will be to resolve because the more entrenched people become. We’re seeing signs of that already. It would be nice for them to be proved wrong but there isn’t a single credible political commentator who believes we will have a government before the Autumn now. Most think it is more likely to be next year at best, with many arguing that a new settlement will be required, taking us back to the drawing board.

Of course this is not just a crisis for politicians. As we have argued time and again in Scope it is a crisis for every citizen, especially the most vulnerable. The Civil Service is not shut down without government but it is severely constrained. New spending is not being sanctioned, departmental accountants, are being prudent, determined that they do not run out of cash, policy development goes on, but decisions on policy are stalled. Any regime can chug along in maintenance mode, but it will merely be treading water. The longer this goes on, the more the effects will be felt and these will be felt hardest in those areas of multiple deprivation most affected by our troubled past.  Mrs May and her colleagues should be much more sensitive to the problems that are mounting in the one part of the UK which is still emerging from conflict. It takes a lot of work to resolve conflicts and even more vigilance to ensure they do not resurface.  

What is most remarkable about the local political reaction is that the fury about May’s manifest irresponsibility with regard to Northern Ireland has been confined to nationalists, despite the fact that it is unionists, and specifically the DUP, who have most to lose by her actions.

If she gets what she wants and wins big, that will mean that the Tories will not have to rely on anyone else to get their policies through the Commons, and that is not good news for the DUP who have, up until now, been able to gain leverage because of their pro-Brexit position.

It also signals that this government cares an awful lot less about Northern Ireland and its specific problems than any of its predecessors. From a unionist perspective that is very bad news indeed. If a growing number of English Conservatives are happy to let Scotland go its own way, how long will it be before they start taking a hostile view of Northern Ireland? After all we cost them money.

Unionists, by definition, see themselves as British, this is legitimate and their right. However it would be interesting to see an opinion poll in England about how many of its citizens agree with that. The reality is that most don’t and this process will exacerbate as Englishness increasingly becomes conflated with Britishness and traditional ideas about unionism fade way on the other side of the Irish Sea.  The calling of the General Election and the fact that our crisis was not seen as relevant to the decision is evidence that this process is underway.





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