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In search of Northern Ireland’s Tories Interest from the Conservatives is purely superficial

A "Titanic" portrait in Belfast. Credit: Getty

A "Titanic" portrait in Belfast. Credit: Getty


June 25, 2024   5 mins

William is sunning himself on a bench outside Newtownards Town Hall. He’s a large man in his seventies with a rolling country accent. I tell him that I’m searching for Northern Ireland’s Tories. He chuckles, shakes his head. Does he know that the NI Conservatives are contesting this seat? His chuckle deepens. “I don’t think they know themselves.”

Standing as a Tory in Northern Ireland is like riding a Gloucester Old Spot in the Grand National. It takes some pluck. The word “Tory” has its origins in the Irish language (possibly from toiraidh, meaning outlaw), but that’s about the extent of the Conservative Party’s connection to the place today. The Northern Irish Conservative is the local representative of an indifferent blue mass, over the sea and far away. Occasional visits from London do not tend to go well, as Rishi Sunak found out in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter last month, when what should have been a simple press conference became a fiasco freighted with dire symbolism as he was asked if his party was akin to a sinking ship.

The Northern Ireland Conservatives describe themselves as “the positive, centre-right, pro-union alternative to the parochial politics which has blighted Northern Ireland”. In 2019, they won a vote share of 0.7%. It’s not difficult to see why. Unionists here can vote for the DUP or TUV, parties far more committed to the union and far more conservative than the Tories will ever be, while voters wanting a less strident unionism can opt for the UUP. Naturally, all of these parties have healthy representation in local government and the NI Assembly, which isn’t something the NI Conservatives can claim. Ask people over here why the Tories run candidates in Northern Ireland and they will shrug — the Conservative and Unionist Party must be seen to contest seats in all four nations of the UK, so they do, and eat their losses. That’s it.

Still, I was interested in these eccentric Tories, so far from the shires. What sort of person would stand for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland? It goes so against the grain that it’s almost punk. Such people would have to be tough, to have a certain dash about them. I had hoped to speak to the candidates about the campaign, but received no response to my requests for an interview. The party political broadcast was no help, just a turgid breakdown of Labour’s manifesto costings. There wasn’t much information online, either: a slim website, a small Facebook group, and an X account that has been suspended for weeks now. So I went to Newtownards, 10 miles east of Belfast, to talk to voters like William. If I couldn’t get a birds-eye view of the Tory campaign in Northern Ireland, I’d explore the ground instead.

Newtownards should have been a good place to begin my hunt. It’s the largest town in the Strangford constituency and has a strong unionist base. The Tory candidate is Barry Hetherington, a Fermanagh man who is the Deputy Chair of the NI Conservatives. There’s little chance of winning more than a handful of votes here. But then there’s little chance of winning more than a handful of votes anywhere in Northern Ireland. Having taken the trouble to stand, you might as well campaign. And yet there’s nothing. 

“Having taken the trouble to stand, you might as well campaign. And yet there’s nothing.” 

Other parties — DUP, TUV, Alliance — have diligently festooned the lampposts with posters. The Conservatives haven’t bothered. It doesn’t look as if their canvassing game is up to much either. With the election in less than three weeks, the people of Newtownards seem unaware that a Tory is running at all. I ask Kathleen, 60s, if she knows that voting Conservative is an option. “No, I didn’t realise that. We’re usually pretty well-informed. And we’re getting close now, aren’t we? We got our [poll] cards through the post yesterday.”

The most common reaction to my questions is weary amusement. Everyone’s face does the same thing. Lips tighten, noses wrinkle, eyes shine. When I ask Hazel, a woman in her 40s, whether she’s aware that the Tories are running here, she smiles broadly. “I’m sure they are,” she says, hoisting an eyebrow. “But I’m not really interested in the Tories.” I wander down the street to Déjà Vu Hair, where I meet Leah, 18. Hetherington’s candidature is news to her, too. Would she vote Conservative? “No.”

A few days later, I hopped on to a bus to Downpatrick. Strangford had been a bust, but perhaps I’d have more luck in the adjoining constituency of South Down. This is a beautiful country. Drumlins rise and fall, boreens ferret away between tightly packed fields, and the Mourne Mountains are stamped indigo on the horizon. I might have gone to Newcastle, a fine town on the Irish Sea, or to Rostrevor on Carlingford Lough. But I chose Downpatrick, with its Georgian houses and hilly streets, for its relative size and status as the county town. 

South Down has been a Sinn Féin constituency since 2017, and a reliable nationalist win for decades before that. The Conservative running here is Hannah Westropp, whose rather coy candidate bio leaves it unclear whether she lives in Northern Ireland or has been Izzarded in from England. 

Downpatrick is a smaller, quieter place than Newtownards. The lampposts advertise Sinn Féin and Alliance. Most of the people I approach, quite sensibly, don’t want to talk about the election. The response of one friendly old gent at a bus stop on St Patrick’s Avenue was typical: “Sorry, mate. I’ve no interest in it. Fed up. No interest at all.” Eventually, I strike lucky. A woman on Market Street knows that a Tory is contesting South Down. I’m intrigued. Had she seen a poster, got a leaflet through the letterbox? “No, it was on Radio Ulster, they went through all the candidates.” This was the only person aware of a local Tory campaign. Otherwise, the situation in South Down was no different to Strangford: a ghost hunt. 

On the bus back to Belfast, rain spotting the windows, I admitted defeat. Granted, the Tories are standing in three other constituencies — East Londonderry, West Tyrone, and Newry and Armagh. Maybe Coleraine is a hotbed of Tory activism. Perhaps if I’d gone out to Tyrone I might have witnessed an electrifying rally on the streets of Strabane, blue rosettes winking in the sun. For all I know, the people of Newry can barely walk down Merchants Quay without being harangued by a Conservative canvasser. Somehow, though, I doubt it. 

The NI Conservatives march on paper alone. It’s a bizarre situation, and easy to make light of. But there’s a bleaker side to all this, too. Northern Ireland is creaking at the seams. Recent recommended cuts to the NHS were so extreme that the Health Minister has simply refused to make them. Infrastructure is failing, homelessness is rising, and Lough Neagh, once the UK’s largest freshwater lake, is now the world’s largest petri dish. In such times, a party that treats Northern Ireland as a political Wendy house ceases to be funny. 

If the NI Conservatives are good for anything, it’s as a warning to their own colleagues across the water. Friendless, decisively outnumbered, shuffling unremarked from election to election, Northern Ireland’s Tories may well offer a glimpse of the party’s future throughout the United Kingdom. Where they will go from there is anyone’s guess. William said it best, that day in front of Newtownards Town Hall. I don’t think they know themselves.


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David McKee
David McKee
28 days ago

Ironic, isn’t it? Unionist and Nationalist politicians have no answers to Northern Ireland’s problems. Both are a spent force.

If the Conservatives made a real effort, over two or three electoral cycles, they’d start winning. And the voters would have a real voice in Parliament.

And Northern Ireland could say goodbye to the poisonous politics that made the Troubles possible.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
27 days ago

‘…all four nations of the UK’

Well, well, NI is a nation(once again!).

rchrd 3007
rchrd 3007
27 days ago

In the mid to late 1980s there was a campaign in Northern Ireland to get all the so called national parties to organise here. At that time none did and the the thinking was, and still is in my opinion, that you can’t claim to be a government for the whole of the UK unless you seek approval from all parts of the country. The Conservatives were the only party to agree to putting candidates up in Northern Ireland and are therefore the only party in the UK that can claim to be truly national. Certainly they won’t win any seats, but thats not really the point.

Geoff Elliott
Geoff Elliott
27 days ago
Reply to  rchrd 3007

I would have been in sixth form and a member of the school debating society when (as I remember it) the “Campaign for Equal Representation” was a thing. The teacher in charge of the club seemed to think this a good idea despite being something or other in the local Alliance party. I do remember thinking this a good idea, so joined the Conservative Party at freshers day at Queens University. It wasn’t a hotbed of conservatism. However in the first general election I was able to vote in, I believe the Conservative candidate in my constituency of North Down (which would have included Newtownards from the article) came reasonably close. Of course, there’s a long history of the Ulster Unionists being split off from, rejoining/pacting with the Conservative and Unionist Party. Part of the idea that appealed was to separate “normal” politics from the tribal/religious aspect here. The SDLP are notionally the sister party of the Labour Party, and hence their excuse for not standing candidates. like Scotland, NI leans further left than England, which surely means there’s a sizable cohort of small ‘u’ unionists that wouldn’t feel comfortable with that arrangement.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
27 days ago

Whilst being so keen to attack Tories ( which I can understand) the writer misses the blindingly obvious point that there are no Labour or Lib Dem candidates to be seen either – even on paper. Whether or not the majority of its population wish the country to be a part of the Union, this is surely some evidence that Northern Ireland is another country. The Tories seem to be trying to show that is not the case – and failing in the attempt. Nothing too surprising in that though.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
27 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Very sad. It seems the main English parties have largely abandoned NI. I wonder if Reform are putting anyone up ? If I lived there I suppose I would have to vote DUP despite their anti Catholic bias.

rchrd 3007
rchrd 3007
27 days ago
Reply to  Mark Gourley

Reform as a party endorsed the TUV I believe. Although Farage then went and endorsed a couple of is mates in the DUP!

Eamonn Toland
Eamonn Toland
27 days ago

Perhaps if people had listened to John Major and Tony Blair on the intricacies of Northern Ireland during the Brexit debate, British politics would be in a very different place today:
I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
Karen Bradley (Cons) Northern Ireland Secretary of State, 2018

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
24 days ago

It’s a simple fact that if you want to vote for any of the main English parties, you have a local equivalent in Northern Ireland.
In the early 90s the NI Conservatives did get a couple of Councillors elected in nice places like Bangor.
Truth was, they sounded just like Ulster Unionists so most people naturally thought, what’s the difference?