>> 22 Oct 2004

Kane's World

My thanks and appreciation go to Alex Kane for taking the time and trouble to engage with me in the following question and answer session. Alex is a long-standing member of the Ulster Unionist Party; has written notable articles in many publications about the passage of political developments within Northern Ireland; has acted as an advisor to numerous senior UUP figures; and is now in the process of writing a book on the subject of Unionism .

More recently he has expressed some criticism of David Trimble's leadership style. In his answers on A Tangled Web, he gives a valuable insight into how many Unionists see the course of events unfolding. Needless to say, we have our differences regarding the 'benefits' of the Belfast Agreement, but we are as one in our desire to see the Union endure and prosper.

1. How do you see Northern Ireland's place within the Union in sixty years time?

'Hard enough to predict what will happen in six months, let alone whatwill happen in 60 years. A great deal depends upon how the pro-Union position is promoted. There is a very compelling cultural, constitutional, economic, social and political argument for maintaining and sustaining the constitutional and geographical integrity of the United Kingdom in its present form; but there is also the reality that unionists have been very lacklustre in their efforts to make that argument coherently and consistently. A lot also depends upon what happens to politics in the South. Sinn Fein will continue to make inroads over the next few years and may even get a foothold in a coalition government. But my own instinct is that, in the long term, Sinn Fein is a busted flush. Away from the "A Nation Once Again" rhetoric, their socio/economic manifesto is intellectually threadbare, economically unrealistic and politically unattainable. The more they come under the spotlight in terms of having to deliver "bread and butter" policies and account for the political and economic consequences of their existing manifstoes, the more they will be shown to be all social conscience soundbite and totally lacking in substance. Again, if we do get the Assembly up and running (and I think that will happen sooner rather than later) there is a distinct possibility that people may prefer the political status quo rather than risk the instability and terrorism (from all sides) that would accompany a push for a United Ireland. I know that some nationalists set great store by demographics and the argument that they will vote NI out of the United Kingdom. But I take theview that a larger than expected number of soi-disant nationalists would choose not to run the risks that could follow a vote in favour of reunification. So, my gut instinct is that Northern Ireland will still be in the Union in 60 years. BUT: Let me enter a very large caveat. I think the relationship between theUK and the European Union (which I despise, by the way) could, eventually,change the whole fashion and form of the UK as we understand it today.'

2. You have often expressed your worries about falling voter turn-out amongst the Unionist population. This now seems to be happening within nationalism also. Given the tribal nature of politics in Ulster, do you think it is time for the mainstream British parties to engage fully in the province's political life?

' One of the first articles I ever wrote (way back in 1975) was in favourof the "mainland" parties setting up shop here. It wasn't a very sophisticated piece (some things never change with my writing!) and was based on the representation vs taxation argument. I supported the Campaign for Equal Citizenship and helped in the campaign to persuade the Conservative Party to organise here. Indeed, I was a member of the NI Conservatives for a number of years; although a quirk of both the Conservative and UUP rules actually allowed me to remain a member of both at the same time. The problem with the Conservatives was that Central Office regarded the NI Association as more of a poor relation rather than a fully fledged family member. It also had the historic links with the Ulster Unionists (only formally broken in 1986 when the UUP pulled its reps off the National Union Executive Committee in reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985), and didn't want to set itself in a position which would frighten the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Believe me, there was nothing which frightened nationalists/republicans more than the prospect of fully fledged integration.For all those reasons and lots more, the Conservatives never really took off. They did reasonably well in the 1992 General Election (around 6% overall and doing better in North Down, Strangford, East Antrim and South Belfast) but in failing to take North Down never had the chance to build a strong platform. Also, there is evidence that the UUP conspired with Central Office to damage the local Conservatives. There may, however, be a ray of hope. If the Assembly does take off, and gets down to "real" politics, it is possible that ordinary left/right political divisions may emerge. It's a decade down the line, at least, but it is possible that ordinary politics could open the door to Conservative and Labour in a handful of local seats.'

3. Belfast now has the fastest growing ethnic population of any UK city. How do you see the role of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland politics in the future?

'The truth of the matter is that local political parties find it difficult enough to get their natural supporters to join them. Then there is theproblem--particularly for the UUP--of getting some "quiet" membership from the "other" community. All of the parties make an effort to court the various ethnic communities but there doesn't appear to be much evidence of the ethnic vote on the electoral register. And, there doesn't seem to be much of an effort by the leaders of the ethnic communities to get involved in the present political debate. Again, that may change if we get "normal"politics here. I am worried, though, by the increase in race motivated attacks and attitudes across Northern Ireland. There is evidence that members of ethnic communities are being attacked because the attackers have been deprived oftheir usual targets, namely the Prods and Taigs they were allowed to attackbefore the peace process.'

4. Has the Ulster Unionist Party got a long-term future?

' That's a difficult question to answer. The UUP has, or should have, a large natural vote out there, but that vote has simply stopped voting at all. The UUP has never fully recovered from the loss of Stormont in 1972 and continued to act as if it was the only choice for the pro-Union community. History has proved otherwise: no longer the largest party and no longer the first party of choice for unionists. I have written fairly extensively about the UUP and what it needs to do in terms of internal reform and modernisation (the most recent pieces can be accessed on Slugger O'Toole). It has to face the fact that it has to fight for every single vote and present itself as a credible political force. It has a number of scenarios to consider: A: The DUP cuts a deal with Sinn Fein and is able to sell that deal to its own electoral base and eat into the UUP vote. Where, exactly, does the UUP pitch itself. Yes, it can say that the DUP stole its clothes, but so what? The DUP will respond with, well, we finished the job because you couldn't. B: The DUP drops the ball. Again, so what? Why would people rush back into the arms of a UUP which hasn't reformed and rebuilt itself? C: The DUP refuse to close on a "bad deal." Why would the electorate punish them? The UUP lacks a clear alternative to David Trimble. It doesn't have a leader-in-waiting, someone who can unite the party and build on the Agreement legacy. Problem is, he can't unite the party either, for the wounds are too deep and still open. In other words, the UUP needs to find answers to the leadership issue, the policy issue, the "how-do-we-get-votes" issue, the "how-do-we-deal-with-theDUP" issue, the reform issue and the new members issue. A very tall order. Not an impossible one, though.'

5. Do you have any regrets about originally supporting the Belfast Agreement, given its manifestation over the last 6 years?

' No. It has been clear to me since 1974 (when I backed the Sunningdale Agreement, albeit with reservations) that the only form of local government that would be permitted in NI would be of the power-sharing variety. I blame John Hume for making that form of government much more difficult to achieve than it should have been. He never gave an inch to unionism and toured the world demonising us. After the success of that approach, he brought SinnFein/IRA in from the cold. The only small comfort from all of this is that his beloved party has been destroyed in the process. I always thought that the UUP failed to "sell" the benefits of the Agreement. Indeed, so satisfactory is the Agreement in general terms, that the DUP is now content to tinker and tweak rather than overhaul, let alone destroy. It is important not to confuse the success of the Agreement with the failure of Sinn Fein to keep their promises, or of the British and Irish Governments to face them down and shore up democracy. '

6. What cultural elements define your 'Britishness'?

'None. My citizenship of the United Kingdom is a fact of birth rather than a matter of choice. That said, I have, in the main, been satisfied with the various benefits that that citizenship has brought me. I have never had a desire to leave the UK and live in, let alone seek naturalisation in another country. I have never heard a convincing case made for voting in favour of a United Ireland.'


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