The outcome of the Conservative leadership contest will be critical for Northern Ireland’s future, yet only a few hundred Tory members in the province will have a say in the party’s decision.
Jeremy Hunt travelled to Aberdeenshire over the weekend, to assure Scots that he “will never allow the Union to be broken up” if he becomes prime minister, but he has spoken infrequently about Northern Ireland.
The former health minister became embroiled in a row recently about whether he provided funds for women from this side of the Irish Sea to travel to the mainland for abortions.
He also claims that a new Brexit negotiating team, including members of the DUP, can persuade the European Union to drop its plans for the backstop that could divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, because its leaders “understand that (it) will not get through parliament”.
Boris Johnson was a regular visitor to Co Antrim, when he was London mayor. He bought a fleet of brand new Routemaster buses from the Ballymena coachmakers, Wrightbus.
At the DUP’s last annual conference, Boris was the keynote speaker, attacking Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement on the basis that Northern Ireland would become “in large part ruled by Brussels” rather than London or Stormont.
Yet, he voted for that agreement, including the backstop, in March, when it was defeated for the third time in the House of Commons.
Previously, the former foreign secretary told an audience of businessmen that “it’s beyond belief that we’re allowing the (Northern Irish) tail to wag the dog”, as we leave the EU.
He was making a point against the backstop, but his statement could be read as a chilling warning to unionists about what to expect if there’s a direct choice between delivering Brexit and protecting Ulster’s links to the rest of the UK.
Last week, YouGov published a heavily publicised poll, suggesting most Conservative members believe that leaving the EU is more important than preserving the Union.
They were responding to hypothetical questions and the answers may have been driven more by short-term anger than enduring political sentiments, but it would be complacent to dismiss the results.
More than ever, the UK needs a premier who cherishes the Union and tries to neutralise the forces that threaten to pull it apart.
On the same day as YouGov released its survey, the influential centre-right think-tank, Policy Exchange, published a paper asking, “what do we want from the next prime minister?”
Its author, Lord Bew, who was one of David Trimble’s closest advisers, wrote, “in an era in which the Union is being questioned and challenged the cohesion of the British nation state must be the highest priority of anyone seeking to hold the highest office.”
It’s a critical point, but the seeming ambivalence of Tory members to the survival of the United Kingdom suggests it will be difficult to persuade the leadership candidates of its merits.
The integrity of our nation state has so far been a relatively marginal issue in the race to become leader.
If the bulk of Conservatives, whose votes will choose the next prime minister, are cavalier about the future of the United Kingdom — if achieving Brexit eclipses economic considerations, party loyalty and even the potential break-up of the country — then neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt will win by making the Union a central theme of their campaign.
The damage to the bonds that tie together the UK didn’t start with Brexit or even the independence referendum in Scotland. The advent of devolution in the 1990s created lasting tensions between central and regional governments that have never been addressed properly.
The administrations in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff allowed nationalists to nurture grievances against Westminster and bred resentment in England, where taxpayers felt they were funding generous public services in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
This erosion of our common political identity meant that there was serious hostility to the idea we could take a major constitutional decision like Brexit as a single nation.
Nationalists and die-hard Remainers tried to pick apart the referendum result, claiming that England forced its choice on Northern Ireland and Scotland. We’ve even heard people who once called themselves unionists or said they were neutral on the constitutional question indulging in this blatantly separatist logic.
Some Leave-supporting Tories, like the MP Daniel Kawczynski, have started to advocate something like the mirror-image of these arguments. They blame Northern Irish unionists for blocking Brexit. “We have still not left the European Union,” he claims, “because the DUP absolutely categorically refused to contemplate the Northern Ireland backstop.”
It’s as if we should accept being ripped apart from the rest of the UK and placed under the authority of Brussels, so that the rest of the country can leave more smoothly.
In theory, Conservative party members should be among the most dependable supporters of a strong, integrated United Kingdom. But three years of angry disputes over delivering Brexit have undermined this country’s sense of togetherness and a dangerous sense of frustration has clearly taken hold of the Tory grassroots.
Whether Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, and whatever type of Brexit the new leader manages to negotiate, unionists must hope that he prioritises rebuilding the bonds that hold our country together.