Although the surprising result of June’s general election was hugely disappointing for Conservatives like me, there was a big upside for unionism.
For the first time since Edward Heath sat in Downing Street, MPs from both Scotland and Northern Ireland are playing a crucial role in a centre-right, pro-Union British government.
This was clearly on display during last week’s Budget, when both the Scottish Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists took pains to highlight how they had shaped national policy and won important concessions for local interests. But as the DUP’s MPs congratulate themselves on a job well done, the question arises: don’t Northern Irish voters deserve this level of service all the time?
In truth the current influence of Northern Irish MPs at Westminster – not to mention the hysterical press reaction to it – only highlights how Ulster’s isolated party system has short-changed voters on this side of the Irish Sea.
Northern Irish MPs are tucked away at the far end of the House of Commons with the rest of the so-called ‘Others’.
Apart from during rare crises they play no role in forming a government.
Of course skilled legislators can still do good work from the backbenches, but this semi-detached status imposes real limits on Ulster politicians, who no matter their talents will never serve as Ministers of the Crown, Secretaries of State or as Prime Minister.
They are also cut off from the back-channels of influence that run through our broad-church national parties.
In a future Parliament with a Conservative majority the Scottish Tories will still be well-placed to bend the Chancellor’s ear; the DUP will not.
Such isolation weakens the Union in several ways. Most obviously, it means that the government is unable to call upon able politicians from Northern Ireland (at least not without finding them a mainland seat). We get the most out of the Union when we use it to ‘pool and share’ experience and talent, as well as cash, and the present system places an artificial limit on Ulster’s contribution to the wider United Kingdom.
It also contributes to the perception that Northern Ireland is not a normal part of our country. The press coverage of the DUP during their negotiations with the Conservatives was an embarrassment, but it isn’t the media’s fault that Northern Irish MPs are so rarely part of the stories they normally cover.
Those journalists who did bother to pick up the DUP manifesto were surprised to find a wide range of proposals not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole United Kingdom.
Imagine the boost for Ulster’s profile if the party had taken responsibility for fronting some of these policies throughout the kingdom, becoming regular features on TV on matters unrelated to devolution or the Troubles?
Alas, this chance was missed. We still hear Northern Irish voices only in connexion to a narrow range of issues, and thus Ulster remains more an issue than a place in the minds of too many mainland voters – and journalists.
Arlene Foster and her party are rightly committed to resisting any ‘special status’ that increases the distance between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
They should recognise that when it comes to politics, that status is already here, and it’s up to them to change it.
• Henry Hill is assistant editor and home nations correspondent for the website ConservativeHome