Theresa May has been continuing her UK-wide tour to convince voters in all corners of the country to back the Conservatives. This weekend saw the Tory campaign machine make a whistle stop tour in Belfast. The Prime Minister attended a local agricultural show and talked to farmers and families about why they must support the party.
So far, so uncontroversial. All Prime Ministerial candidates seeking election or re-election make the customary stop on the far side of the Irish Sea to make a pitch to Northern Irish voters.
This time, however, Theresa May’s trip has unleashed anger among both voters and politicians in Northern Ireland. Her attempt to charm locals has backfired spectacularly.
Theresa May has been refusing to attend crisis talks in Northern Ireland since power-sharing collapsed in January. As the crisis worsened and the deadline for resolve between nationalists and unionists came and went on numerous occasions, Ms May appeared non-plused. She failed to visit the region and instead sent Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to deal with the mess, despite his unpopularity in the region.
Amid growing fears about the impact of Brexit on the Irish-Northern Irish border and allegations the British government wasn’t doing enough to address the issue, the Prime Minister eventually pledged to visit Northern Ireland prior to Article 50 being triggered. Again, no such visit transpired and the pledge was instead quietly dropped.
Theresa May has, perhaps more than any other modern British Prime Minister, shown disinterest, if not outright contempt, for Northern Ireland. Clearly focusing on Brexit, she sees Northern Ireland as an unnecessary distraction to her main goal.
So her decision to visit Northern Ireland, in order to ask for votes, naturally went down badly. The move risked showing an arrogant attitude that she would only come when she had something to get from the Northern Irish in return.
Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd accused her of ‘astounding arrogance’ while SDLP MLA Daniel MacCrossan denounced her as a ‘ridiculous Prime Minister [who] couldn’t fly to Northern Ireland for the talks process to try and save our institutions’ but made it to a farmers’ market.
Her visit has reignited disdain for and distrust of what many in Northern Ireland consider to be the British establishment. At a crucial time for power-sharing talks (which are still in limbo due to another deadline extension), this may extinguish good will from Northern Irish parties towards Britain and flare tensions further in what is already a fraught situation.
What’s more, Theresa May’s decision to visit Northern Ireland as part of her campaign was an odd one strategically. Unlike Labour or the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives field election candidates in Northern Ireland. However, the party performs abysmally, garnering just 1.3 percent support at the 2015 election.
So it is impossible, therefore, that Theresa May’s pitch in Belfast will manage to win Conservative seats in Northern Ireland. However, her trip to Belfast was most likely not done to improve relations with the locals but to instead play to traditional unionist Conservatives at home in Britain. By visiting all constituent parts of the UK, she improves her reputation as a unionist; more important than ever as the link with Scotland is under attack.
Yet, while her trip may play well to hardliners at home in Britain, it has risked undermining the increasingly depleted good will that the Northern Irish have for the Conservatives.