Robert Rigby on the electoral difficulties for Conservatives in Ulster
Politics in Northern Ireland is notoriously difficult. Consent not force is now the order of the day thanks to the peace process and Good Friday agreement; the absence of violence has enabled politics and democracy to flourish although there remains an undercurrent of sectarian tensions with isolated incidents of violence from dissident groups.
Trying to inspire people to vote in a different way is tough. Politicians set the tone so if that tone is consistently negative and divisive then trying to build a society which is respectful of different opinions and creating a united community is just that bit more difficult to achieve. Parties and politicians continue to use emotive language and tribal politics remain. The elements of point-scoring and accusations remain and have never really gone away; Northern Ireland is still in transition.
Set against this background the Conservatives fielded their own candidates in all but two of the Constituencies across Northern Ireland in May’s General Election. 16 out of the 18 Constituencies were covered which was a contrast to five years ago when the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists joined forces to create a bipartisan electoral alliance which eventually separated in 2012.
The strong number of Conservative candidates was a first and sent a message to the electorate that the Tories were serious and the only national party fielding candidates in the four nations across the UK. The objective was to provide the electorate with a real choice and an opportunity to start the process of moving away from what has always been, to begin thinking about a new era. It did not quite work out that way with the Conservatives struggling to be heard and registering much of an impact although a marker has been put down for the Conservatives to build on.
Whilst out campaigning one got a real sense people wanted change and viewed the politicians from the established parties as being negative and offering nothing different. Often on the door step during the election one would encounter people who said if I lived on the main land then I would be voting Conservative but not here in Ulster. When it came to putting a cross next to a new party helping to create a different political climate that simply did not happen and most reverted back to the way they have always voted.
There is still undoubtedly a tribal mentality with elements of bigotry where religious divide is prevalent. This could be seen in the Ashers Bakery ‘gay cake’ issue and Jim Wells’s resignation as Health Minister.
Ashers Bakery was a Christian run bakery in Belfast which refused to make a cake bearing a same-sex marriage image on it and Jim Wells resigned following remarks he made linking same-sex relationships to child abuse.
The economy and welfare reform however were at the forefront of discussions across the election. Today the crisis remains over welfare reform and the budget; deadlock exists creating a vacuum both politically and economically. And on the wider economy concerns remain on the opportunities open to young people.
Heavy manufacturing and traditional industries such as ship building, linen production and agriculture has been the staple of the day in Ulster but like a lot of other countries especially within Europe this has had to change as the economics of those countries has changed. Engineering and agriculture remain strong sectors for employment however the service sector - tourism, retail, ICT, financial and food processing now account for a very large proportion of the work force. Although tourism remains a strong component in the employment mix it is in many ways lagging behind owing to the relatively poor transportation and accommodation infrastructure which exists across Ulster.
The election was a good one for Unionism with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) both increasing their share of the vote (they now hold 11 out of the 18 Westminster Constituencies) whilst the nationalists (Sinn Fein and Social Democratic Labour Party) both lost ground. Perhaps one of the reasons the Unionists did well was they formed a pact which allowed the DUP to run uncontested in a couple of Belfast seats whereby the UUP were able to do the same thing in two Sinn Fein seats including Newry & Armagh
For the Conservatives to succeed they need to be offering an attractive alternative promoting a positive message both politically and economically, one which reaches out to those disenfranchised and disillusioned voters who are crying out for real change. The opportunities are there not in the short term but medium to long term.
Robert Rigby is a councillor on Westminster Council and was the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Newry & Armagh in the 2015 General Election.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 19/04/2016.