The Tories' Northern Irish problem

By Symon Hill
April 15, 2010

While David Cameron rushes through the glitzy world of manifesto launches and pre-election speeches, he may be thankful that there have been few questions about his party's strategy in Northern Ireland. Yet a dispute over who's backing whom in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone highlights both the problems of the Tories' approach and the absurdities of the current electoral system.

The Conservative Party have done a deal with their old allies the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in an attempt to move on from several decades of animosity. Nothing wrong there, perhaps, but the UUP have got used to doing things their own way without much help from London.

If you glance at the list of candidates on the Conservative Party website, you'll see that the
the candidate listed for Fermanagh and South Tyrone is Tom Elliott. The problem is that Elliott withdrew as a candidate last week, along with his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rival. They are both backing an independent unionist, Rodney Connor, in an attempt to unseat the sitting Sinn Fein MP, Michelle Gildernew.

The fact that Elliott's name is still on the Tory website a week later – when other aspects of the site are continuously updated to feed the desires of a fast-paced media world – suggests that the Conservatives have no idea what to do about Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They should really admit that the UUP have acted independently and that there is therefore no Tory candidate. The alternative is to back a “unity unionist” and appear sectarian.

The combined nationalist vote is generally higher than the unionist vote in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but it will be split between Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), whereas Connor will have both the main unionist parties behind him and may well take the seat. This highlights the absurdity of first-past-the-post: a constituency with a nationalist majority represented by a unionist MP.

Having said that, there are of course other considerations than whether a candidate supports unionism or nationalism. Brian Wilson, a Green Party member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, insists that “At a time when the public and the political parties are talking about the need to move on from the politics of division, this decision highlights the worst aspect of the past. So-called ‘unity’ candidates reinforce sectarianism”.

He has a point. The UUP and the DUP seem to be assuming that a candidate's position on the union with Britain is more important than his/her views on economics, taxation, public services, education or the environment. The deal has gone ahead despite the DUP's vocal attack on the Tories' economic policies.

But as the people of Northern Ireland have long known, first-past-the-post reinforces sectarianism. It is no accident that Northern Ireland was the first part of the UK to use proportional representation in local council and European Parliament elections. First-past-the-post encourages the tendency to identify with one of two blocks and to vote on the basis of vague loyalty or fear of the other. This may be most obvious in Northern Ireland, but we see it throughout the UK, wherever someone decides not to vote for a smaller party that reflects his/her views for fear of “letting in” whichever they regard as the worst of two evils.

I'd like to ask the Conservative Party: when will you remove Tom Elliott's name from your candidate list? And will you criticise your UUP allies for a sectarian deal? Perhaps more importantly, will you ever recognise the dangerous and undemocratic nature of first-past-the-post?

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