What does Theresa May’s visit really tell us?

The big story of the general election is unlikely to be who wins, but where they win. Theresa May’s Conservatives (to use the party’s branding) are on course for a convincing victory in next month’s general election. Senior Labour figures are publicly admitting as much.

The size of the Tories’ victory will depend on just how far they are able to eat into traditional Labour territory. Which parts of the UK electoral map will turn blue for the first time since anyone can remember?

Polls suggest that the Conservatives will win the popular vote in Wales for the first time since 1922, and potentially the most seats there since the 1850s.

In Scotland, under Ruth Davidson’s energetic and unconventional leadership, the Conservatives have replaced Labour as the official opposition to the SNP government at Holyrood. They’re on course to be the only party making gains in Scotland.

Campaigning in Tyne and Wear last week, Theresa May said that the Labour Party had “deserted” working class voters. Her party made big gains in some of Labour’s traditional urban heartlands in recent council elections. She will be hoping to repeat that trend in the general election.

Wales, Scotland, the North of England: is there anywhere the Conservatives don’t have in their sights?

The answer lies across the Irish Sea.

Northern Ireland is a very different ball game. The challenge for the Conservatives here is to keep their deposits, let alone win a seat. To be fair, however,, unlike Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives do actually stand here.

That’s what brought Theresa May to the Balmoral Show at the weekend, albeit for 25 minutes. She was campaigning with Conservative candidates, just as she did in Glasgow, just as she did in Bridgend, just as she did in Tyne and Wear.

Here, however, her visit raised far more eyebrows. Nationalist parties (and Alliance) are still reeling from the Prime Minister’s neglect of Northern Ireland in recent months. When inter-party talks to form a new government at Stormont stalled, they called on the Prime Minister to intervene. She didn’t.

Before the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, she made high-profile visits to Edinburgh and Cardiff — but never made it to Belfast. This is despite common recognition that Northern Ireland will almost certainly be the region of the UK most directly affected by Brexit.

Moreover, Mrs May’s call for parties to “come together,” ahead of talks to form a government at Stormont, had more than a hint of irony. Indeed, if any progress had been made between the parties in the last round of talks, it was thwarted by this very general election campaign.

There are certainly awkward questions for Mrs May.

In the bigger picture, however, there are even more awkward questions for Northern Ireland’s local parties, especially on the unionist side. The Prime Minister may have created a perception that she is detached from Northern Ireland politics, but it masks a bigger issue: local unionist parties have been systematically detached from broader UK politics for much of the last century.

It should be noted, of course, that the DUP took out a £250,000 advert in the Metro newspaper ahead of last year’s EU referendum. The paper does not circulate in Northern Ireland, but the advert advised readers in mainland British cities to ‘take back control’.

This is arguably the most that any party based in Northern Ireland has done in recent years to engage in a broader debate affecting the whole of the UK. Many local activists campaigned for Scotland to reject independence in a personal capacity, but the ‘Better Together’ campaign did not want any of Northern Ireland’s parties to be officially involved.

If the pro-Union campaign in Scotland believed Northern Ireland’s parties could be an asset in persuading voters of the benefits of the Union, their support would surely have been wholeheartedly welcomed. That it wasn’t undoubtedly speaks volumes.

This year, before the BBC announced its schedule of national pre-election debates, the DUP threatened to take legal action if it wasn’t invited to take part. As the fourth-largest party at Westminster, it argued that it was entitled to be there.

The party has a very legitimate point. Its participation in a national debate would have made for interesting viewing.

The fundamental reason it wasn’t invited, however, was not simply because of the BBC’s editorial decisions, but the historic failure of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties to engage with this broader Union.

Instead, Northern Ireland will get its own edition of Question Time ahead of the general election. It will be broadcast to viewers across the UK. After watching, I doubt that viewers from Land’s End to John O’Groats will be contacting Ofcom to ask why Northern Ireland’s parties weren’t represented in a national televised debate; they will be wondering why this programme was on their TV screens at all. It will almost certainly seem like an irrelevance in the middle of a very different election debate.

Yes, Theresa May’s weekend visit might have been slightly awkward. She might seem detached from Northern Ireland politics. But perhaps that’s because Northern Ireland’s unionist parties are so far removed from the wider Union.


Originally published at Northern Slant.

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