Tory hustings event required next prime minister to address Northern Ireland concerns

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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The hustings in Holywood of the two Conservative leadership contenders was a notable and rare occasion for Northern Ireland.

There was no such opportunity for the Tory members here to grill leadership candidates in 2016, because Theresa May was crowned before the contest for the top post was put to the membership.

The previous election was much earlier, in 2005, when David Cameron won the leadership.

The Tories only have around 400 members in Northern Ireland. If membership was pro rata with the rest of the UK, there would, based on our population share, be around 5,000 members in the Province. Conservative politics has never taken off here, despite significant flourishes of support in 1992 and in 2010 general elections.

The local Tories have had the disappointment of seeing this government take a much closer interest in relations with the DUP than in the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland. This is because the DUP has 10 MPs who prop up the government, while the NI Tories have a now derisory vote.

Yet they are not without influence, as yesterday’s event demonstrated. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson insisted that they would support the local operation.

The questions at the hustings were wide ranging and by no means restricted to Brexit.

Both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson condemned the backstop. Mr Hunt said it either had to go or be changed. Mr Johnson said that the Withdrawal Agreement, which contains the backstop, was a “dead letter”.

No-one in the audience asked why they had both then supported the Withdrawal Agreement, or if they would give a pledge not merely to accept a codicil or legal reassurance as “change” to the backstop, and then say that it is now OK.

Even so, this was a worthwhile exercise in which the next prime minister, whoever it turns out to be, had to come to NI and take seriously local, albeit Tory, concerns.