20 February 1997 Edition

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Sketching a new landscape

Major dances around May poll


Eight nationalist MPs, unionist MPs reduced to ten, a Labour government, the bi-partisan Labour/Tory approach to the Six Counties ended, the Tories in opposition reunited with the Ulster Unionists, and an end to "a thousand years of British history".

Some of these scenarios may seem far-fetched but all are within the realms of possibility. They were sketched out by various parties this week as the prospect of a Westminster general election on 1 May looked ever more likely. Fears of an earlier election receded when John Major's government defeated an attempt by Labour on Monday night 17 February to precipitate a vote of confidence. Once again the Ulster Unionist MPs played a key part in Major's survival.

The issue on which Labour chose to strike was BSE and confidence in Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg. The deal had been done well before the vote and Labour overtures to UUP leader David Trimble were in vain. In return for abstaining Trimble's party got a commitment from Hogg to seek an early lifting of the EU ban on the sale of cattle from the Six Counties. (For good measure in his speech Hogg threw in a derogatory and inaccurate remark about BSE being worse in the 26 Counties.)

It is also believed that Trimble got a commitment for the establishment of greater powers for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee at Westminster, long a pet project of the unionists. One of the reasons unionists do not want an early general election is to ensure that this is a fait accompli for the new government. Whatever chance there is of a close result will be enhanced by a later poll date, and the unionists dearly wish to be in the same pivotal position on the other side of a general election.

In the election campaign there will be plenty of opportunities for them to promote their case within Britain because "defence of the Union" is a key part of Tory election strategy. They wish to pose as the only party that can keep the United Kingdom together. Speaking at the Welsh Tory Party conference on 15 February Major said Labour was threatening to "take a hammer and chisel to the constitution" with their support for Welsh and Scottish devolution. "They would gerrymander Britain and play party politics with our nation for pure political advantage," said Major, and in a ringing phrase summed up the Tory view of the past:

"A thousand days of Labour could ditch a thousand years of British history. It's a poor bargain. Better to keep the history and ditch Labour."

(The bit about "playing party politics" is deeply ironic given that this is how Major and the unionists destroyed the peace process.)

One historian interviewed in a British newspaper described the Tories' "wholly English distortion of history" which shows "they haven't a clue about what has happened in Ireland or Scotland". But Major's electioneering unionism does strike a chord with a section of British voters. This is reflected in the comments of Andrew Hunter, chair of the Tory Backbench Committee on Northern Ireland. He has called for the restoration of the formal links between the Tories and the Unionists, reuniting the two parties. Hunter claimed on 17 February that private talks are already being held to rebuild the links. Labour's spokesperson on Ireland Mo Mowlam said this would threaten the Tory/Labour bi-partisan approach.

While talk of such formal Tory/Unionist reunification seems premature at present it does point to a possible scenario after the general election. A Labour government would be faced with a more stridently unionist Tory party, and if it was a government with a small majority or even a minority government the power of Trimble's party would be greatly increased.

This brings us to the next scenario - the possibility of actually reducing the number of unionists at Westminster from 13 to ten or 11. This possibility exists if the SDLP would agree an electoral accommodation with Sinn Féin. Party chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin called for such an accommodation in an article in the Irish News on Wednesday and said it would "transform the political landscape here". Indeed it would, and not only in the Six Counties. The weakening of unionist leverage in Britain would also help to change the British political landscape, away from the narrow English Tory vision of long-dead imperial glory to a more democratic future for the people of these islands.

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