I’ve wanted to visit Northern Ireland for some time now. I’m half Irish, so can recall the opinion my biological father had on the troubles, from the perspective of a Catholic from the Republic of Ireland. In my early years he didn’t hold back about his views, so I was familiar with the strong feelings people had about Northern Ireland and where it ‘belongs’.
My want to visit grew stronger after the EU referendum as the issue around the Northern Irish backstop and the importance of the Good Friday agreement is something that is raised often. However, the opinions are often from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived in Northern Ireland or indeed lived through the troubles. As I am a curious cat, I like to do my own investigation and rarely trust things that are told to me unless I have heard them straight from the horse’s mouth.
As luck had it, it was brought to my attention from twitter of all places, that we have some Tories in Northern Ireland (not something I knew until recently) and so I touched base with them to see if I could meet them at conference and take it from there. With a connection to the Northern Ireland established and then an unexpected personal reason for hopping on a plane, I was able to visit Northern Ireland and even better…campaign!
On the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I visited Lisburn to support Gary Hynds, the Parliamentary Candidate for Lagan Valley, who was campaigning on the high street. I love campaigning generally as I love speaking to people but I must admit this was rather nerve wracking as Northern Ireland has different parties standing. They have Unionist parties such as the DUP, UUP, PUP and TUV. Nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin and the SDLP and then there are the Alliance Party and Green Party. As well as different parties, it’s even more complex due to devolution as they have the Northern Ireland Assembly, which hasn’t sat since Jan 2017 due to political deadlock.
Another thing I noticed was that there were campaign posters on EVERY lamp post, round about and bridge. The streets were plastered with faces of the candidates and slogans. I found it quite interesting as we are far more reserved about where we have campaign material.
One of my first encounters was with a woman who wanted to know our stance on abortion and if we were pro-life. Generally this is not something I speak openly about and I have never been asked this whilst campaigning. On 22nd October the law changed in Northern Ireland to decriminalise abortion and to legalise same sex marriage. Because the Assembly has not been sitting, this was brought in by Westminster after Labour MP Stella Creasy presented the Bill amendment to Parliament. This has left some feeling that devolution was undermined. Of course this was to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and without an assembly there was no choice but for Westminster to intervene but it still doesn’t mean that all in Northern Ireland are accepting of this. It was also clear that people have simply had enough of politics. There was far more feeling of “what’s the point” than I’ve experienced even with Brexit. Not only had people voted leave in Lisburn, which causes the same frustration as we feel, but they have an assembly not sitting despite them voting for representatives which is having a huge impact on all the areas of devolved powers such as Health, education, & policing which are currently not being dealt with. To add further frustration some MPs who are elected to Westminster refuse to sit ( Sinn Féin MPs)
Despite this feeling of disillusion, there was interestingly far less hostility than I get campaigning in England. People were both surprised and mostly happy to see the Conservatives standing. It’s an interesting feeling to be in that moment the small party who could well be the alternative from the norm. Possibly even a little glimmer of hope that well needed change was coming. Of course Boris Johnson’s deal came up but with far less anger or controversial feeling than I anticipated. Discussions were had about the proposed checks and interestingly one particular couple spoke openly about their experience during the troubles and that people don’t want to go back to those days, but still weren’t opposed to the deal.
After campaigning and learning all I could from the public in the short space of time I had, I went to Belfast to see some of the areas impacted by the troubles. I visited the Shankhill Road peace wall, erected to keep the fighting communities separated. We went to Shankhill Road, where the bombing in Frizzell’s fish shop took place on 23 October 1993, killing 10 people and injuring 57. Included in those who died was 7 year old Michelle Baird who died alongside her parents. I wont lie, the experience was in moments overwhelming, my own son is 7 years old so the thought of this horrific act of violence is something that stayed with me. The divisions of a not too distant past still seem to be felt. Markings on pavements to outline the loyalist streets still remain and paramilitary murals are a continuous reminder of the remaining complicated foundations that today’s politics is trying to build on. It also made me realise further why peace in Northern Ireland cannot be taken for granted and how important it is for us to not forget Northern Ireland as we reshape our future as a Union. People have died in our lifetime so that the people of Northern Ireland can be part of the United Kingdom. That cannot be forgotten.
I finished my trip by meeting some more Northern Ireland Conservatives and that’s where my visit became even more interesting. Amongst the group of fellow Tories was David and Karen Harte. This interesting pair are part of the Original Gang of Northern Ireland Tories and David was the first candidate to stand for the Conservative and Unionist Party 30 years ago! (he came 2nd) Karen and David explained to me how they lobbied the party to be able to gain membership and stood outside Party Conference getting signatures for a petition and spreading awareness that everyone in the world apart from the Northern Irish could indeed be party members. Their campaigning along with the other OGs as I’ve named them are the reason we have the Northern Ireland Conservatives. The night ended singing Karaoke with David and Karen as all good trips should end and I left feeling content by what I was able to learn and happy by the friends I have made.
I wish all the candidates standing in Northern Ireland success and feel disappointed I wont be able to make it over again before the election, as it was a real pleasure to campaign with them. I hope that as time goes on, the Party will grow in NI and become as strong as it is in England, as NI needs a change up in their politics and the guys and girls in the NI Tories, could well be that change needed.
I also want to give a massive thank you to everyone in the Northern Ireland Conservatives who made me feel so welcome. I cant wait to see you all again soon!