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11 May 2015

Unionists must put the UK above party advantage

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Suddenly, unionists have a real opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the political future of both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Will they grasp it?

I put £50 two weeks ago on a Conservative victory because I believed the English would be wary of risking economic stability.

I say the English, because it is they who care most about fiscal prudence. Increasingly, they feel the Celtic fringe are ordering irresponsibly at the communal table, complaining about the size of the portions and the quality of the food, and contemptuously telling the English to pick up the tab and take them to a better restaurant next time.

The Scottish referendum woke up English nationalism when its people discovered that - because of the Barnett Formula - they bankrolled higher public spending for the other parts of the UK: in 2011, per head, it was £8,529 in England, £9,709 in Wales, £10,152 in Scotland and £10,876 in Northern Ireland.

Ed Miliband would have lost anyway, but Nicola Sturgeon's demand that together they "lock Cameron out of No 10" hastened his downfall. England feels abused and exploited: its present mood is to tell all critics from other parts of the UK to push off and take their begging bowls with them.

Which is why it's time for Northern Irish unionists to be statesmanlike and constructive rather than truculent and obstructive and to demonstrate that they put the interests of the UK before party advantage.

They're not in a position now to be kingmakers, but the Conservative majority is very small and a deal with most or all of the 11 unionist MPs could be in the interests of the Government, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Scottish unionism is in intensive care, Welsh unionists are incoherent and England is fast losing interest. Constitutionally, the United Kingdom is close to shipwreck: it's time for unionist hands to get on deck and rather than doing a few perfunctory repairs, set about making the ship seaworthy again.

It didn't get much attention, but last week Peter Robinson said a UK commission on the Union would be top of the party's shopping list after the election. That was picked up by Ciara Dunne, a columnist in the Left-wing New Statesman, who broadly backed the idea while urging that a commission be "inclusive and progressive" and work "towards a harmonious Union" rather than be "a political tool to fight against nationalist parties".

That makes good sense. Quite a lot of nationalist voters in the UK are temporarily disaffected rather than permanently alienated.

Lord Salisbury, once leader of the House of Lords, has proposed the replacement of the Lords by a directly-elected federal parliament, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all having parliaments with the same devolved powers along with committees in their capitals formed by their federal MPs with the revising power of the present Lords.

Lord Strathclyde, his successor and friend, says a "grand committee" of leading politicians from all four nations should come together to decide what powers and money should be given to devolved parliament and to find ways of restoring a sense of communal pride to the UK.

In the Financial Times, the very influential Professor Timothy Garston Ash called for "the Federal Kingdom of Britain".

Northern Irish unionists could help to make that commission happen and participate in making it work properly.

Hardly anyone on the mainland has a clue about Northern Ireland's unionists: the broadcasters' unjustified and insulting exclusion of the DUP from the main debates showed to what extent they are felt to be a race apart. Last week, just before the election, the Daily Mirror told its readers that the DUP were anti-abortion, begging and the BBC, and in favour of the death penalty, of teaching creationism, and of legalising discrimination against LGBT people.

Can all those nice and/or clever people in the DUP please remind their leaders that being positive is not sinful, that if you want to get the English to listen, it helps to be gracious, and that if they want to save the United Kingdom, in negotiations with Downing Street they should avoid selling their birthright for a mess of pottage?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards