Sometimes you have one of those quite literally jaw-dropping moments. Like maybe you switch on the telly and the first thing you see is a decrepit Iggy Pop selling car insurance. Or perhaps it’s Lynda Bellingham calling for the overthrow of the government last week on Loose Women. Sadly, that outburst of revolutionary fervour didn’t last very long, and they were back talking the usual cobblers before you knew it.
I can still recall reading an article round about 1990 or so, when a lot of the official communist parties around the world were rebranding themselves. This article said the Workers Party was going to change its name. “Fair enough,” I thought, “it’s not like they haven’t done that before.” Then I skipped down to the next paragraph and saw they were changing their name to the Democratic Unionist Party. “Hoookaay,” I thought, “that’s a bit off the wall even for the Sticks.” Imagine my disappointment when I reread the article and discovered that it was about the Workers Party of Ethiopia. Not that the rebranding did Mengistu much good in the long run.
Which came to mind when thinking of the Official Unionists’ lash-up with the British Tories. This will lead to joint candidates under the banner “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force”, which manages the unlikely feat of being an even worse party name than “Traditional Unionist Voice”. As to whether future UCUNF candidates will perform better than they did under their UUP billing, I have my doubts.
I’m also curious, in a micro sort of way, as to where this leaves the Ulster Tories, most of whom are superannuated unionists of one stripe or another. And thereby hangs a tale. Readers of a certain vintage will recall the two campaigns, attracting a motley crew of supporters but largely masterminded by the British and Irish Communist Organisation (yes, it’s those guys again) aimed at importing mainland British party politics into the North. For a while in the 1980s, this gained a surprising amount of traction.
The Campaign for Labour Representation did pick up support from quite a few elements of the official labour movement in Britland, albeit more in union conferences than in the actual party. What was strange about the CLR was that, though it sought to import the British Labour Party into the North and thereby tie the North more closely to British politics, it didn’t dissent – on paper, at least – from the official Labour position of unity by consent. This would seem on the face of it to be contradictory, and so it proved toward the end of the 1980s when an explicitly unionist faction of the CLR coalesced around Kate Hoey, a unionist expat embedded in the London Labour Party, for whom Labour representation was to be tied to a project of shifting Labour towards a unionist position. And that was more or less it for the CLR. The Orange wing did create that strange political beast, the South Belfast Constituency Labour Party (properly constituted), but that was crippled at birth by one of its founders, Jeff Dudgeon, simultaneously co-founding the UK Unionist Party without, however, telling his comrades. I am told the SBCLP(pc) maintains a shy and retiring existence, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know who to ask. Meanwhile the BICO-inspired faction went off and turned its attentions towards Irish Labour.
The Tory front, the Campaign for Equal Citizenship, had more success. That is to say, the CEC managed to badger the Tory hierarchy in London to overrule the misgivings of its NIO ministers and to allow would-be Tories in Norn Iron to not only join the party, but to organise constituency associations and stand in elections. And for a few short years, it appeared that they might even gain some critical mass, at least in the prosperous and eccentric constituency of North Down, where lots of well-heeled unionists like to imagine that they really are just an exclave of Surrey. But they never amounted to much outside North Down, and even there it turned out that the Tory moment wasn’t much more than an interlude between differing brands of independent unionism, that of the late Jim Kilfedder and of Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney.
So what does Reggie think he’s playing at? Restoring the Tory-UU link broken in 1972 has been a long-term project of David Trimble, now sitting as a Tory peer, but it’s not like Trimble is a power in the land any more. What’s more, some people in the Unionist Party aren’t too thrilled about this mating dance. Chris McGimpsey remains fixed on his quixotic plan to reinvent the Official Unionists as a party of the left. More seriously, the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, has been New Labour’s most consistent ally in parliament. This may count for something, as there’s no way that Reggie is going to be elected an MP in East Belfast, if he attempts a move to the more promising territory of South Belfast Michael McGimpsey will just tell him to fuck off, and that just leaves the question of what Sylvia’s intentions in North Down are.
More generally, is this going to play with the punters? The Unionists’ strength used to be that they were a catch-all party, and there’s still a sociological base for a unionist party that isn’t the DUP. But is allying with the Tories, even the Cameron Tories, going to play well with the punters? Is it going to be an irrelevant formality like the SDLP’s supposed fraternal relationship with Labour – in which case why bother with this UCUNF boondoggle? And how exactly does this brave new move into the British mainstream mesh with Reggie’s harebrained idea of a transfer pact with Prodiban leader Jim Allister in the Euro-elections?
Well, perhaps it’s just a symptom of a party with no ideas left grasping at straws. That too would be consistent with the party’s doomed attempts to outflank the DUP on the right, which have just led to them losing the voters they had previously won from Alliance. But why in the name of God would the Tories want the Unionists on board? What’s in it for them? Don’t they know these guys are more trouble than they’re worth?
Rud eile: On the subject of North Down, Alliance have picked as their Euro candidate the borough’s deputy mayor Ian Parsley, who seems like a pleasant young chap. The sceptics will be laughing on the other side of their faces when he picks up 250,000 votes from dyslexic DUP supporters who think Ian Paisley is on the ballot paper.