Neil Wilson: What's next for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland?

The Conservative campaign for the Assembly was one of the best we’ve ever had. And as I indicated yesterday, we have discovered that where we do contact people with a focussed message then it pays off. Our transfers indicated that our votes came from many different parts of the community – mainly from unionists and alliance voters – but also from nationalists as well. These people like what they see and they understood that they had to vote for it. 


What’s next for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland? 

On the ground, we’ve also blooded a whole new generation of activists and taught some old dogs new tricks as well. When putting together my list of people to thank I ended up with 52 canvassers on the list. Last year I had about ten. Groups like Conservatives for Liberty and Conservative Way Forward rallied to the call and sent activists to help, but also to learn. Our operation on the ground was practically flawless but our problem was the perceived lack of relevance in the debate. And that’s where we’ve fallen down. So what are we that is actually any different and what principles should we build our party around? 

Sincere, genuine, unionism 

We need to move the debate away from the existence of the border to what it actually means to be British. If we really are we’ll argue for Northern Ireland to look a little more like the rest of the UK. 

It’s often said that nationalism had a dynamic because they were trying to get to somewhere where as unionists were already there, and so attracted a different breed of politician. Since first gracing these pages with these arguments in 2009, we still haven’t found anywhere to be going. Real Unionism can only be provided by a party with a presence in every corner of the UK, and gives unionism a dynamic. It gives unionism somewhere to be going to that is not only British, but that is also attractive to socially liberal voters from all backgrounds, and also the growing number who are increasingly perplexed by our competitiveness-killing economic balance. 


It remains to be seen what effect the UUP going into opposition will have on the dynamic of Stormont yet I can’t see what major differences there are in terms of vision for Northern Ireland between them and the DUP. There is simply nothing joining the dots in Mike Nesbitt’s thinking. 

We fought the 2016 campaign on the basis of sitting in opposition, pointing out that we disagreed with the five party coalition on virtually everything, both economic and social. We need to come at Stormont from the right, pointing out that its failures can’t be addressed by moving gradually, in increments, towards the economic model of East Germany. 


Too often, the people who really suffer at the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein are the people who vote for them en-masse, prior to complaining endlessly about their inadequacy, then voting for them again. Both parties have an inbuilt tendency towards paternalism as well as a deep distrust of the electorate who want to live their lives in a way that they have not prescribed for them. Every political party here claims to speak for the dispossessed yet the path pursued by the Executive only benefits the well-educated and comfortably off who benefit from an enlarged civil service and a lack of competition in the private sector. No-one speaks for those who didn’t get the best start but who want to get on in life. Tories must be the party that takes says, ‘we’re not for those who have made it, but for those who want to’ and our policies and campaigns must be constructed with that in mind. 

These values need to be reflected in everything we do and say so people have a clear idea of what we stand for. We need to continue to build from the grassroots up and continue to plough through casework in a centralised and organised manner to build relationships that will prove to be the only thing that will overcome the fear factor. 

We need CCHQ to cooperate, especially with regards to Votesource. Despite years of pleading, we’re still entering what few UUP supporters identify themselves as BNP. And the DUP code is only available in certain circumstances. We’ve a huge technology advantage over other parties, only one of which even has a voter database so we need to make this work for us. 

Sadly, Votesource is just one area where we are let down. Generic campaign materials constantly refer to ‘Britain’, which renders them useless to us. One email that went out prior to the elections, asking for money, listed all the campaigns that were being fought by Conservatives, from London, to Scotland, to PCCs. Except us. To borrow a phrase used in the 2000s by disgruntled Northern Ireland supporters constantly perplexed by being referred to as Ireland or by our national symbols being written off as sectarian, ‘We Exist’. 

And we’re going to keep on going, because Northern Ireland deserves better.

Neil works in marketing for a large tech business and has been a Tory member since 2005. He’s been a candidate in both Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliamentary elections and an agent in marginal seats. A self-described campaigning addict, Neil believes that hard work (eventually) delivers results.