IAN Parsley, whom I actually quite like, is in danger of becoming a figure of fun if he continues with what is beginning to look like an increasingly desperate effort to get himself elected.
In 2009 he contested the Euro elections as a candidate for the Alliance Party. In 2010 – having left Alliance for the Conservatives – he stood for Westminster under the UCUNF banner; even though, a few months earlier, he had said: "Conservatives are often historically viewed as opposed to change so the UCUNF 'vote for change' slogan appears to fly in the face of the Ulster Unionists' link-up with them. This slogan is almost as bad as the UUP's 'decent people' campaign a few years ago. People simply don't know what UCUNF are about, but they can be confident that whatever they stand for, it probably won't mean change." How right you were, Ian.
Last week he announced: "If I were asked to run under the Ulster Unionist banner (in the 2011 Assembly elections) I would consider it if that is what the Conservative Party wanted and were minded to do. However, I would only do it if I could remain part of the Conservative Party."
Now, to the casual observer in North Down this must begin to look like Vicar of Bray territory: for while you will never be entirely sure under what banner he will seek election, you will always be certain that Ian Parsley will be a candidate!
What prompted his latest re-positioning were well-sourced reports that the Conservative Party have offered not to stand against Ulster Unionist candidates in either Assembly or local government elections next year. Since the Conservatives didn't bother telling him this in advance – and he is, after all, the only local Conservative already endorsed as a prospective candidate – it must have come as something as a shock to him. Yet it still strikes me as a little odd that he should immediately offer to run as an Ulster Unionist rather than fight what is clearly a unilateral decision by Conservative Central Office.
The decision – if true – not to oppose Ulster Unionist candidates in 2011, does beg the question of what, precisely, the role of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland is to be: to endorse an Ulster Unionist in the 2014 Euro elections; to provide a couple of unknowns in unwinnable seats at the next Westminster election? How does that fit in with Owen Paterson's view that "David Cameron has said, our overriding objective in Northern Ireland is to promote a peaceful, stable and prosperous society. We will help to achieve that by offering its people access to mainstream, non-sectarian UK politics”.
How do you offer that access if you don’t offer candidates from your own party? If it is acceptable for Ulster Unionists to be endorsed by the Conservatives for Westminster (provided they take the Conservative whip), then why isn’t it equally acceptable for Conservatives to be endorsed by Ulster Unionists for the Assembly (provided they take the UUP whip)? And if the Conservatives are standing aside for Ulster Unionists will they also be willing to endorse Ulster Unionists who have been endorsed by the DUP and Orange Order as part of a wider unionist unity deal?
Mind you, I always thought that the Conservatives would take this decision, since Paterson has also said: “We have consistently made clear that we fully support the institutions established in Northern Ireland over the past decade. We have stated many times that they are the only show in town. There are no Conservative plans to change them. We back an inclusive, power-sharing administration that respects the parties’ political mandates. There is already a review mechanism in the St Andrews Agreement and a Working Group was established by last week’s Hillsborough Agreement to look at the effectiveness of the Executive. We have said in the past that the Executive might at some stage evolve into a more normal system of government and opposition, as have others, but are adamant that any changes could only happen with the consent of the Northern Ireland parties. We would never seek to impose anything.”
That is not the language of someone who believes that the Conservative Party should field its own candidates and commit them to a reforming programme inside the Assembly and local government structures. That is not the language of someone who believes that a Conservative government has a duty to bring truly effective government to Northern Ireland. That is not the language of someone who wants to bring real change to politics here. Let’s face it, if there are no Ulster Unionists in Westminster and no Conservatives in the Assembly, then what’s the point of UCUNF?
The truth, of course, although whisper it softly at the moment, is that there isn’t any point. UCUNF is as dead as Monty Python’s parrot: “This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies!”
The joint UUP/Conservative HQ has been closed down and the only declared candidates for the UUP leadership are pretty lukewarm about the pact. Another potential candidate – who I’m led to believe may declare in the next couple of weeks – is hostile to the project and would make the issue one of the central planks of his campaign.
It seems to me that the Conservatives in Northern Ireland are in exactly the same position now as they were in the 1992-1998 period. Yes, Central Office will pay lip service to the notion of changing politics here, but they will never follow through. The UUP has been allowed to outmanoeuvre and override the views of the local Conservatives since the pact was first announced in July 2008: but in the final analysis both parties have been very badly damaged by the relationship. The Conservatives didn’t have the courage to stand over the “change” they promised to bring and the UUP didn’t have the sense to realise that a dalliance with the DUP and Orange Order completely undermined the purpose of the Conservative link.
Both parties should now go their separate ways. Too much damage has been done to the relationship to make it a viable option for future elections. Quite apart from anything else, I still don’t trust either David Cameron or Owen Paterson to protect the Union or unionism. I’m not alone in that opinion.