THE Conservatives re-launched as a stand-alone party in Northern Ireland yesterday, promising to be “colour blind” to religious differences and offer “national politics with a local accent”.
The new NI Conservatives launch at the MAC arts building in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter was not attended by Conservative leader David Cameron, who was testifying at the Leveson Inquiry in London.
Instead, Secretary of State Owen Paterson was the most senior Tory at the event and he spoke about his personal desire to bring national politics to Northern Ireland, something which he had long argued could help to remove the sectarian prism from the Province’s political life.
The event was attended by about 150 people. Some of those present were new to the Conservative Party, including ex-Ulster Unionists Trevor Ringland, Bill Manwaring and Brian Dunn, but many of the faces were familiar from Tory events over recent years.
The party yesterday pledged to contest all elections. But, when asked from the floor whether it will contest the upcoming Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster caused by Martin McGuinness’s resignation as an MP, local Tory chairman Irwin Armstrong said that he was unsure as to whether the party would be wise to fight an election in an area where it is weak.
When asked by the News Letter why this party had any chance of succeeding when the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force (UCUNF), which promised very similar things, failed to get any MPs elected, Mr Armstrong said that the Tories had trusted in the UUP’s capacity to change but many in the Tories had been left “sadly disappointed”.
Mr Paterson responded to the same question by arguing that although many viewed UCUNF as a failure because it got no MPs elected, actually it had received a significant level of electoral support.
“I think that the difference here is starting to build up on the ground and building a solid base... I think people want to move on a vote for a party which is colour blind and which concentrates on the day-to-day issues.”
Mr Paterson said that politics in the Province was “semi-detached, cut off from the mainstream” of Westminster political life and added: “That‘s something we are determined to end.”
He said that as Secretary of State he would look to the new NI Conservatives to “support me and the Government as a whole as we take the difficult decisions to turn around our country after the mess left by Labour”.
But he added: “Yet in those areas that are devolved to Stormont you are entirely free to go your own way — on issues like health, education or whether there should be a government and opposition in the Assembly.”
The Secretary of State said that “the more Conservatives we have elected to Stormont then the greater the chance of moving politics on”, and added: “I believe that there is an increasing public appetite to move away from the old politics, based on purely constitutional issues, to a politics based on the issues that affect people in their daily lives.”
Mr Armstrong said that “the constitutional issue has been settled for the foreseeable future and voters no longer want to hear constant wrangling about the border or symbols”.
The Ballymena businessman, who unsuccessfully stood as a UCUNF candidate in North Antrim in 2010, stressed that the new party will be centre-right in outlook and business-friendly. See Morning View, page 18