Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Normalisation vs business as usual

The Tory electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionists was part of an ambition to “normalise” politics in Northern Ireland, so that it isn’t dominated by issues of sectarian identity.

It’s a very noble ambition: it’d be great to see Catholics switching to the DUP because of their transport policies, or Protestants voting for Sinn Fein because of their plans for education.

But the Tories don’t want to risk the electoral chances of their historic allies in the UUP by standing against them – hence the joint ticket. And here’s where the risk comes in.

If the Tories become participants in NI politics as well as playing the more neutral brokering role of a UK government, such a pact could make things difficult.

Of course, if NI politics has indeed become ‘normalised’, then the government needn’t worry about neutrality, as there’ll be no political crises for it to negotiate through. So Cameron’s approach will only really work if the sectarianism it aims to bury is already much enfeebled.

And here’s where we get to this week’s devolution of policing to the NI authorities. The UUP’s insistence on voting against the move is a very clear statement that politics there is still too sectarian – something that holds true, in one way or another, whether their opposition is justified or not.

So the Tories’ electoral partners by their actions refute the very premise on which the pact was formed. A sticky wicket.

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