Even the most astute observers of Westminster politics have a tendency to plug their ears and hum when the subject of Northern Ireland is mentioned. However, the past few weeks have seen developments across the water that are impossible to ignore. While Iris Robinson’s bed-hopping antics and the First Minister’s very public breakdown inevitably cornered the headlines, something far more sinister has been going on in the background.
The Conservatives will soon announce the joint Parliamentary candidates they are running in Northern Ireland with the Ulster Unionist Party – the most moderate of the unionist organisations, which was nearly wiped out as a political force at the last elections. While there is something to be said for more mainstream, multi-issue political parties running in Northern Irish elections, this move will do nothing to bridge the sectarian divide.
The issue is that the Conservatives are formally tying themselves to one community in Northern Ireland. Voting across sectarian boundaries is still remarkably low – the identification of the Conservatives with Unionism is hardly likely to drum up masses of Catholic votes. In mainland Britain, the Tories would never enter into an electoral alliance with a party that primarily represents white voters, or Christians, or men, so why should the Republican Catholic community in Northern Ireland be excluded like this?
The peace in Northern Ireland is far from settled, as recurring squabbles within the Assembly and the ever-present threat of suspension demonstrate all too well. To build solid foundations of peace and democratic politics, the British government must be able to win the trust of both communities in Northern Ireland, as well as working closely with the Irish government. If the Conservatives win the upcoming general election, their close ties to the unionist community cannot but prejudice their discussions in favour of one side of the argument. Nationalists will find it difficult to believe that a Tory government will have their best interests at heart.
Let’s not forget that the biggest breakthroughs in the Northern Ireland peace process have happened under a Labour government: the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing between fierce enemies Sinn Féin and the DUP, IRA decommissioning, the transformation of the old sectarian police force, the establishment of the independent Parades Commission. Labour has consistently proved that it can work with representatives of all parties, both orange and green, to achieve lasting settlements. Time may well tell if a future Conservative government will build on these settlements or knock them down. We cannot afford to go backwards.