Working towards Irish Unity




The Tory Party are emotionally detached from Northern Ireland

When the UK Conservatives lose the Westminster election in late 2024 or early 2025, they are likely to be heavily defeated and this will lead to a significant change in their approach to many policies. We have already seen the reaction of some since the May 2024 local elections calling for the party to adopt more right wing policies. 

The heavy defeat, while not unexpected, will still be a shock for the party. But it is unlikely to be on the scale of the defeat suffered by the Canadian Progressive Conservatives in the federal elections of 1993 where all but two Conservative MPs lost their seats, including the Prime Minister Kim Campbell. In Canada there was widespread disillusionment with the government and surging support for an upstart Reform party especially in Western Canada which took votes and seats away from the Conservatives. As a result the Tory vote collapsed taking them from a majority government to one which did not have official party status in the House of Commons. The Progressive Conservatives had to merge with the Canadian Alliance (successor party to Reform) to create the Conservative Party of Canada, before they would again form the federal government. 

The Reform Party will probably gain a substantial number of votes in the Westminster election but without securing many seats. However the impact on the Conservatives will be significant. David Cameron wrongly presumed when he was Prime Minister that he could stop the rise of UKIP by calling a referendum on European Union membership. Instead he created a platform for a fringe idea that leaving the EU would be beneficial for the UK. In many ways we have seen a reverse takeover of the Conservatives by UKIP since then. The increasing calls by senior Conservatives for the UK to leave the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) is just the latest example of this.

Brexit was and remains at heart an English Nationalist project, something which Unionists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who supported leaving the EU, seem to have missed. Those who seek an independent England are entitled to their views, just as are those who aspire to an independent Scotland, Wales or a reunited Ireland. During the protracted negotiations for Britain to leave the EU, Conservatives called on Unionists in Northern Ireland to accept a different Brexit from the rest of the UK.

The May 2024 local elections were a disaster for the Conservatives and the calls for the party to adopt a more right-wing approach to issues were immediate. If the Conservatives do merge with the Reform party after the Westminster elections, it will make any move towards moderation even more challenging for the party.

The desire by certain Brexiters to secure a clean Brexit was stymied by the complications of Northern Ireland sharing a land border with an EU member state, i.e. Ireland and the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. We have now seen the British Government’s plans to deport people from the UK through the Rwanda Scheme also being restricted because of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Although the Conservative government has said that they will appeal this judgment, there is no guarantee that this will be successful in overturning the decision of a court in Northern Ireland.

Brexit was sold as a simple solution to a complex issue and it is something which will continue to impact on relations between the different parts of the UK and between the British State and the European Union. The partition of Ireland was the Brexit of its day. Totally self-defeating and the cause of both literal and figurative division with its own dynamic. The only way of lessening the impact of Brexit is through closer alignment between the UK and the EU. This is not something which either major UK political party is aiming to do. However we can be certain that when, as seems almost guaranteed, Labour forms the next British Government, the Conservatives will immediately cry foul and claim that Brexit is being undermined. 

It is perhaps wrong to say that there is no simple solution to solve the complications of Brexit caused by Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. As somebody once said on BBC Question Time, a United Ireland would solve all these issues at a stroke.

There are both internal dynamics within Ireland and external dynamics from Britain, the EU and the USA which are adding towards the momentum for reunification.  However getting a referendum on Irish unity is going to be challenging as neither the Conservatives nor Labour are willing to spell out what the criteria for calling a border poll would be. The vote itself will also not be easy. We cannot take a vote for reunification in either the North or the South for granted. But we need to start planning and preparing now, before a unity referendum is called. This will enable us to avoid the chaos of Brexit. 

The last time that the Conservatives suffered landslide defeats in 1997 and 2001 did not lead to an immediate moderation of their policies, but the reverse, an ever more Europhobic approach to international relations. Both times the Conservatives turned down the opportunity of possible electoral salvation through Ken Clarke, a cigar smoking, brandy drinking, jazz loving MP who remained a popular figure with the wider British voting public. Instead in the leadership elections of 1997 and 2001, they inexplicably voted for less well-known, less charismatic politicians on account of their Euroscepticism in comparison to Ken Clarke. I joined the Conservative party in 2001 in the hope and expectation that the party would vote for Ken Clarke to be leader and embrace a more pro-European and socially liberal approach. Instead they elected William Hague and then Iain Duncan Smith, someone who few people outside of Westminster knew existed and the party continued its focus on increasing hostility to Europe. This is a malaise which has only increased over time. While I still have friends who are members of the Conservative party I left two years later in 2003. When David Cameron became Conservative party leader in 2005, in his first conference speech he said that the party needed to stop “banging on about Europe”. In his last speech outside 10 Downing Street the morning after he had lost the EU referendum, he resigned. 

The Conservatives after the next election will be going through a period of introspection as they seek to find a way back to being in government. The distant prospect of regaining power is not likely to lead to a modernisation of their policies but rather a bitter and self-indulgent battle over how ‘a truly Conservative’ i.e. right-wing populist approach can be delivered. But during the many years, perhaps a generation out of power, with few MPs likely to be representing constituencies outside of England, they will have to think about the barriers which blocked their agenda. Northern Ireland despite its small size compared to the UK as a whole and lack of connection with British politics (there are no Conservative or Labour elected representatives in the region at any level) will be near the top of their list. In that context we can surely expect for some senior Conservatives, those who remain, to call for a United Ireland. 

While the Conservatives claim to be the most patriotic of British political parties we should remember that historically they have not been the friends of Unionism within Northern Ireland. It was a Conservative government which prorogued the old Stormont Parliament in 1972. Mrs Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister, the person who said that Northern Ireland is as British as her own constituency of Finchley went on to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 which gave the Irish government a role in how Northern Ireland was governed. It was negotiated without the involvement or agreement of Unionists. When John Major was Conservative Prime Minister he signed the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 with Albert Reynolds then Taoiseach of Ireland, where he stated that the UK had no ‘selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland’.

Brexit is about breaking away from seamless membership of the European economic zone, the largest of its kind in the world. A border had to go somewhere, especially when Theresa May ruled out membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union during her Lancaster House speech.

Although she tried to minimise barriers through her proposed backstop, Northern Ireland Unionists like the majority of the Conservative party, opposed this. The British Government had already committed to no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, therefore the border could only go in one place, in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. While the Windsor Framework does lessen the friction which would have applied under the Northern Ireland Protocol, there are still more barriers to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, than was the case before Brexit. Trade routes have reoriented and Britain is no longer a ‘landbridge’ to Europe. This has political and societal impacts as well as economic ones. 

But the growing distance between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland has many causes. The Conservatives offered to go into a full coalition with the DUP after the 2017 election resulted in a hung parliament, where no single party had a majority.

However the DUP preferred to have a looser arrangement of confidence and supply. The offer to join a coalition would likely have led to the first UK Cabinet Minister from a Northern Ireland constituency since the Second World War, but it was not to be. In the most recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May 2022, the Conservatives only put forward one candidate and he failed to keep his deposit.

The official title of the Conservative party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. But their desire to leave the ECHR, to leave the EU unencumbered by the restrictions necessary due to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, may lead them to embrace the policy of also leaving Northern Ireland.