The Conservative party has set out its One-Nation vision. With gains in England and Wales and a foothold in Scotland, the Conservatives are the only major parliamentary party looking across the UK. However in Northern Ireland, the party came behind UKIP. It’s time to take NI seriously.
Northern Irish politics is challenging. Parties remain split along religious lines, with nationalists appealing to mostly Catholics and Unionists appealing mostly to Protestants. Parties have an obsession with the past and sectarianism, rather than commercial success. A saying amongst the young is “they don’t have politicians in Northern Ireland, they have religious zealots and terrorists”. And they’re pretty fed up with it.
There is space for the Conservatives there. Voter turnout in NI was 58.1 per cent, 8 per cent lower than the UK turnout. NI is also behind the UK in productivity and disposable income. Furthermore it has a low employment rate with a great deal of those that employed working for the state, 27.9 per cent to be precise. At t moment the business minded are left out. They need competent pro-business politicians to help them succeed.
Here is how the party can get started:
1) Avoid alliances: The UUP Alliance in 2010 made many people think the two parties are the same. We need to distance ourselves from unionism, which attracts voters through sectarianism. The Conservatives need to be the party for NI and the UK, and not simply another unionist party.
2) Don’t mention Thatcher: When campaigning it is impossible to know who you will meet in Northern Ireland. Nationalists are not likely Conservative voters and do not like Lady Thatcher for obvious reasons. But it is impossible not to meet them. Trust me, you don’t want to be campaigning in parts of Belfast extolling the virtues of this line if you value your knee caps.
3) Start small: Start by winning council and MLA seats. Stormont uses the D’hondt system, so it would be possible to get a Conservative MLA elected. Even UKIP has an MLA in Stormont.
4) Local candidates: It’s is a small place and things are done in a local way. We must not parachute in candidates and expect them to succeed, in the 2015 election only 5 were local. We need candidates who are from, or who have lived there. This is a basic principle in the rest of Britain so why not seemingly in Northern Ireland.
It will take time to grow the party and things do not change quickly there. Things happen at a much more leisurely rate. But, by building on the great work already done at the previous election, we could see our first Conservative MP in Northern Ireland by 2030.
Nicholas Mazzei is an ex-army office who served in the political arena of Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.
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