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Interesting times… June 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I don't claim to have any insight into the inner workings of Ulster Unionism, but the news today that an UUP councillor (the brilliantly named) Peter Bowles has jumped ship to the Northern Ireland Conservative Party over the current liaison between the UUP and the PUP has been fairly intriguing BBC News. What's most interesting is the fault lines it has exposed within the 'moderate' unionist bloc between their single MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, and the Reg Empey leadership. I would always have considered Hermon to be a pragmatist on a par with Empey, but she's clearly spitting mad about the links in the assembly.

On paper it was a brilliant coup for Reg Empey. Should the power-sharing executive be formed the UUP would get an extra ministerial seat at the expense of Sinn Féin. Quite a wheeze for a party which has been on the back foot since it's Westminster contingent was eviscerated by the DUP. And perhaps clever politics too if the DUP appears just a little too staunch and steadfast come the Autumn and refuses to do the deal with SF. A moderate UUP with a significant cohort of Ministers might be just the sweetner to mask the bitterness of yet another administration with SF participation. However, it presumably turned to ashes for Empey following the shooting of Mark Haddock hardly a week or two after the ink was dry on the agreement between the PUP and the UUP. And it's hard not to see a considerable degree of hypocrisy on the part of the UUP considering the merry dance of the last eight years as executives came and went over links between SF and PIRA. On the other hand, Trimble had a hell of a job convincing his own base to move with him, so perhaps the hypocrisy was well warranted, or at least understandable. And Empey has been eloquent in his admission about the manner in which Unionism used the paramilitaries in the past.

No, in some respects the most curious aspect is the direction of the defection. The NI Conservative Party is hardly the biggest political player on the field, yet this is the new home for the most moderate of the 'moderates'. Yet it makes sense. For those who detest the DUP, but have no wish to move towards Alliance, the purity (as some would see it) of the NICP might be just the ticket. That the NICP is effectively a stalled political vehicle, with no prospect of popular support is irrelevant – principle has been maintained.

Yet it also points up a solid immovable fact. Pragmatism is becoming the order of the day within the North. Outside of the environment the Good Friday Agreement has engendered (as distinct from the GFA itself which may or may not have a future) there is no serious political existence, within it even the UUP and the PUP can be cosy. And a similar dynamic is evident on the other side of the political equation where the wailing and gnashing of teeth of 'dissident' Republicans only serves to highlight the dominance of Sinn Féin as the voice of Northern Nationalism and Republicanism.

Somehow I don't think Empey will be too worried about this particular straw in the wind, but unless the deal can be seen to deliver in the short to medium term he too might discover that pragmatism also has it's price…


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