Friday, 20 May 2016

Conservatives in Northern Ireland - squaring the circle 27 years later!

I often think how strange it is that a chance encounter can shape your life, change your views, or take you off along a road which would never have been travelled had that chance meeting not taken place. 

A recent "social media" friendship brought such an encounter to mind. It happened during the 1989 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. I was in the scrum waiting to be served at the bar in the Imperial Hotel. Standing next to me was a distinguished gentleman with a home made addition to his "observer" conference pass, which read "North Down Conservative Association". I asked him what it was about. He explained that he and a growing group from North Down constituency were loyal and committed supporters of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. They had formed their own thriving Conservative Association, which had continually been refused "recognition" by the National Union (the predecessor to the present Party Board). The Party were apparently concerned that the formation of active Conservative Associations in Northern Ireland would alienate our traditional allies in the Ulster Unionist Party, as well as risking further splits in the pro Union vote, which could enable the election of left wing Nationalists in constituencies with large Catholic populations. The gentleman's name was Dr Lawrence Kennedy. 

The following lunchtime I attended his fringe meeting, held in the basement of one of the many seafront hotels. A senior party agent stood angrily at the door making a note of the names of those attending, and of what was said. Coming from a traditional right wing working class protestant Liverpool family I had some sympathy for the "don't split to Unionist vote" argument, but the strength of Dr Kennedy's case won me over to his cause. In a nutshell;


  • Peace and normality in Northern Ireland was being impeded by the continued unchallenged dominance of sectarian based politics
  • Right wing/ free market Roman Catholics were effectively disenfranchised as the two parties Catholics could happily support were both Socialist.
  • And most surprisingly to me was that a very significant minority (at least 45%) of Catholics in Northern Ireland were in favour of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, yet due to hardline sectarianism in the Unionist Parties only 1% of Catholics voted Unionist. The status quo was actually damaging the election of pro Union politicians.
In those days Party Conference was a very different beast to what it is today. In a rare (though sadly short-lived) flirtation with democracy, the National Union allowed a members' ballot to choose two motions for debate. They did not however make participating in the ballot particularly easy. The ballot papers were available from a far flung information desk between 9am - 10am and the ballot boxes were hidden away somewhere else (no-one seemed to know where) with voting only possible (if you could find the ballot box) between 3pm and 3.30pm that same afternoon. Given the entire party hierarchy (CCO staff, agents, regional officers and MPs) all seemed to have ballot papers and "guidance notes" the result of the ballot was usually assured. This time, however, the peasants revolted. A group of about 30 of us lobbied members, handed-out leaflets (with a map showing where to find the ballot box) and guidance notes on what "motion number" to vote for.  We won the ballot, we won the debate and Dr Kennedy received the official recognition he and his colleagues deserved.

For a short period the Conservative Party flourished in Northern Ireland. We were the largest political group on North Down Council and at the 1992 General Election, Dr Laurence Kennedy polled 14,371 votes in North Down, coming within 4,900 votes of winning the seat. It was an outstanding achievement and I had a degree of satisfaction that I helped in some way to make it happen. 


Sadly, this was the high water mark. Within three years our fortunes declined as rapidly as they has risen. I suspect the momentum and excitement gained from the campaign to achieve recognition subsided once that battle was won, along with the enthusiasm of the grassroots, demoralised as we all were by Black Wednesday and John Major's somewhat inept handling of Europe.

I thought little about the fortunes of the Northern Ireland Conservatives since those heady days, until a few months ago when I received a Facebook request from a chap named Neil Wilson. Neil was the Conservative Party candidate for East Belfast for the NI Assembly elections. 

Over a period of six months I watched in growing admiration how he set-about building a grassroots organisation from scratch, how he trained and motivated his team, designed and delivered literature and without any of the structural support we take for granted here, he executed a campaign which I would have been proud to fight in West Kent. 

On the day, Neil did not get the result his campaign deserved - he polled 477 first preference votes. Having said that, the Conservative Party polled badly throughout Northern Ireland. In North Down - the home of Northern Ireland Conservatism where we once controlled the council and nearly won the parliamentary seat, the Conservative candidate there polled just 672. You can read Neil's moving final campaign blog HERE  

And for the anoraks amongst my readers (and I suspect that's most of you) there is a fabulous website HERE which has a super graphic which not only shows the results seat by seat, but also shows how each candidate's "second and third" preference votes are reallocated as candidates are eliminated from the ballot. Neil and his team have every right to take pride and satisfaction that he drew support from all sections of the community, thus in some small way fulfilling Dr Laurence Kennedy's vision of providing a non sectarian party which can bring hope and normality to Northern Ireland.

I was so impressed with what Neil and his team achieved that I offered to visit Belfast to help with a campaigning or training day, and I was delighted when he said yes. It will be my first visit to Belfast, and I am looking forward to it greatly. 

Footnote
I am truly delighted that the John Strafford (who was then Wessex Area Treasurer) sent me the following YouTube clip from the 1989 conference, showing his magnificent "winding up" speech in support of the motion. I had forgotten just how good it was and how overwhelming the support from the floor.  Look at the sour faces on the platform behind, not one smile and clap throughout. A wonderful piece of Conservative Party history showing the membership forcing change on an intransigent and remote establishment. 


1 comment:

  1. And there is Conservative Home saying that the Party used to be one big happy family, whereas now apparently the Prime Minister treats the members with contempt (I don't believe he does) and that this is a first.

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