The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Julian Robertson Interviewed
Editor's note: Due to technical difficulties with our ISP we were unable to publish this prior to the election.
Anthony McIntyre • 25.11.03

Unlike recent candidates seeking election to the assembly in tomorrow's poll, who have been interviewed by the Blanket, Julian Robinson is firmly situated on the right of the political spectrum. No Marxist revolutionary or tree-hugging environmentalist, he chairs the Northern Ireland Conservative Party. As part of his learning curve, however, he once attended a meeting of something called the Revolutionary Workers Party while living in Liverpool. I suppose if Everton were the only home team that day then why not pass an hour with the cults? A suitable punishment for somebody subscribing to right wing ideologies. He seems to have thought so too, finding that they 'had no sense of humour! They wanted to lead a revolution but I knew there weren't going to be many laughs along the way. What's the point in that?' I could identify with the feeling - know a few myself, faces like lemon suckers, the only books they ever got as children at Christmas were those containing turgid tracts about Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. While the rest of us played cowboys and Indians, those PC kids on the block were immersed in strategic games of bourgeoisie and proletariat. Anyhow, on his return from Liverpool, Julian became one of the founding members of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland.

I first met him while we were both panellists on a Sunday radio broadcast. He was personable and engaging, no airs and graces - much removed from what the popular republican perception of Conservative Party members is. Although apart from one caustic exchange with the bumptious Rupert Allison, the Tories I have debated with were civil and courteous. That we could debate at all was amazing in itself. At one point the hatred was so mutually intense that the Conservative Party gloated at the deaths of our hunger strikers and we celebrated their sleep being disturbed by the Brighton bomb. Whatever else about the peace process, it has created an environment in which people can find the space to engage, including those who do not support it.

The Northern Ireland Conservative Party tends to confirm for people living here just how unlike Finchley the North actually is. Although the party in Britain is a pale shadow of its former self, endowed with as much appeal as the last two leaders had hair, Michael Howard may insert a steel rod into its back at a time when the spin and spoof of the Blair government is threatening to take sizeable bites from Labour's huge electoral and parliamentary majority. Blair's addiction to lying may just be the Viagra that puts an end to the present flaccid Tory performance. But in the North the party is unlikely to benefit from any stiffening of resolve in what Conservatives here would call the mainland. The North truly is a place apart. The conventions that apply across the water have little currency here.

The Northern Ireland Conservative Party is a marginal body and has never again attained what minimal heights or exposure to publicity it managed under the leadership of Lawrence Kennedy. The price of that profile on one occasion was almost his life. The INLA took over his house but intervention by the RUC prevented the organisation proceeding with whatever plans it had in mind.

What stares the Tories in the face is that the North has its own specifically local parties which people remember at election time, despite backstabbing all year round, discard their reason and come out to vote for. If our selection of candidates were to appear in Finchley, the public would suspect an alien invasion from the planet Uranus, where the inhabitants have the unappealing habit of talking out their backsides. They in turn would find little in Finchley that would persuade them to stay for any length of time. After all, for them, Northern Ireland is the most important place in the world.

Standing in North Down where he is trying to build on his performance from the Westminster election of 2001 when he secured 815 votes, Julian Robertson's chances of winning a seat do not seem good. At present the party has no elected representatives.

At one stage we did have the largest Party on North Down Council but then the Party went into a nosedive and our fortunes followed. We nearly unseated the late Jim KIlfedder in North Down too but just fell short. I often wonder how things might have been if we had just managed to take that seat. Oh, the heady days of near-victory! However, our Party is rejuvenated and reinvigorated and we are coming back. We will continue working hard to build up strength and target a seat or two to get that breakthrough. It will happen some day, I just couldn't bet the mortgage on when.

Nor would I. The words Robin Day once scorned Jeremy Thorpe with after the latter detailed his visit to a British power station - ‘as close to power as you will ever come’ - crept into my mind. A brief look at Tory electoral fortunes gives the party little cause for comfort. In the 1993 local government elections Lawrence Kennedy won 414 first preference votes and managed to take a seat. In 1997 Julian Robertson's vote was 112; in 2001 it increased by a mere 60 to 172. Married with three children Robertson runs his own business, is affable and possessed of a sharp intellect. He hardly needs politics to find friends and seems more than capable of sustaining a career outside of the murky world. So why do the Conservatives bother organising or standing in the North given the seemingly fixed political allegiances? Even Labour won't do that. With unionist and nationalist conservatives in abundance British conservatives can only spoil the broth. Does Churchill's statement about the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone not loom ominously on his mind when traversing the political landscape here?

It’s not a question of bothering if you only think you can win. After all, if that were the case we wouldn't stand in the cities of Liverpool or Glasgow at the moment either. I agree that political allegiances do seem to be stubbornly fixed but that does not mean they will be forever. After all, if the Assembly survives as a stable institution, do you think people lying in a hospital bed care if the Health Minister is a nationalist or a unionist? No, what they want to know is are they going to get the care they need when they need it. How does the Orange/Green divide come into that? Just because you are a nationalist or unionist, does that mean you have the same outlook on healthcare delivery as every other nationalist or unionist? I think not. The pressures on local parties to adapt to the new politics will grow as we take charge of our own devolved affairs and the opportunity is there for ourselves and Labour ... Finally, I am a Conservative and I am from Northern Ireland. Why shouldn't I stand for my beliefs? Why do other small parties stand? I never said success would be easy or a short-term thing but we shall get there in the end.

A reasonable assumption elsewhere, perhaps, but surely a waste of time here. Moreover, from 815 votes to a position where obtaining a seat becomes a realistic possibility, the Tory vote would need to grow exponentially and there seems no way that this is going to happen. How can the Tories persuade voters that they can make a serious challenge for an assembly seat? What has changed from 2001 that would convince a sizeable portion of the electorate to break with ingrained habits and go for the Conservatives?

I have principles too you know. A political party exists to fight elections, not hide behind the net curtains and wish the electorate would all come knocking at our door and say how wonderful we are. The Conservative Party has been through the doldrums nationally and obviously that affects us locally. We are getting our act together nationally, starting to build our strength up and we are now doing so locally. Standing in the Assembly elections is only one step in the process of building up this party. If we have not had our act together locally, that is due to our mistakes and our inexperience. That is changing, and as leader of the party here I can assure you that come November 27th we get up out of bed and carry on with the process of building up the party, no matter how many or how few votes we gather in the Assembly elections. We are becoming more hard-nosed, more determined, more experienced and ready. You should not underestimate the effect a rejuvenated Conservative Party can have.

North Down being the most affluent constituency in the North, the Conservatives may think it is good to be amongst rich friends. But they are fielding a further six candidates outside the constituency: South Antrim, East Antrim, Lagan Valley, East Belfast, South Belfast and Strangford. And in a revealing glimpse of Tory populism the manifesto says it is insufficient to keep development restricted to one part of the North. The party feels that there is a serious problem of over-government here. It points out that in Scotland, where there is three times the population, there are only 129 members in its parliament whereas Stormont has 108. At least the Scots can claim to be doing something other than whining for their living. But is the critique of government size genuinely motivated by the obvious bungling inefficiency that characterised the last executive or merely an ideological assault? Are the Tories simply not saying let the free market rule and the devil take the hindmost - invariably the poorest in society?

Nice try to bring in an ideological criticism but the two halves of your question don't go together. The larger the government, the greater the bureaucracy, the greater the waste. All we are saying is why do we need so much government? I understand all the arguments about keeping people on board and smaller parties involved but do we need so many government departments and so many MLAs? The irony is those people who want to keep things large, cumbersome and bureaucratic will actually end up undermining that which they wish to protect. Government is there to serve the people and if the people end up viewing it as the other way round, with government having a self inflated view of itself and MLAs having their noses in the trough how will it gain respect?

Linked to the issue of Leviathan government is the make up of the health service. The Conservatives wish to replace the four health boards with one servicing commissioning. But apart from centralisation and the problems that it brings how much more effective would it be?

For a place the size of Northern Ireland, we have to question the need for four health boards. Yes we want to streamline to make sure more of the money goes to the front line but we also want to give primary care a much greater role in commissioning services. 80% of contact with the NHS begins and ends with GPs and we wish to see resources reflect that, with GPs given a greater role in commissioning services.

How then would the Conservatives assess the role of Bairbre de Brun as Health Minister? After all she was introducing right wing measures that even the Tories under Thatcher are said to have balked at.

Her one key reform was the introduction of Health and Social Care Groups. However, in the process she managed to alienate GPs so that across Northern Ireland they refuse to take part in them. She was a minister who brooked no compromise, her way was right and that was it so she did achieve the near impossible and unite GPs. Her period in office was characterised by an inability to tackle strategic decisions on the reform of hospitals, trusts and Health Boards so that the modernisation of the health service now lags 3 or 4 years behind England, Scotland and Wales.

In the educational sphere Julian Robertson is a supporter of academic selection and a strong opponent of the Burns Report. 'How the proponents of these measures can look us in the eye as they contemplate this wanton destruction ... is beyond me.' He has still to come to terms with our political scenery where all the players give you a dirty look straight in your face when you don't believe the obvious lies they are telling. But without academic selection, perhaps the way is clear for achievement on the grounds of merit. Given his strong views on education how does he assess the role of Martin McGuinness as Education Minister in the last executive who pushed for an end to academic selection?

I don't think my views are particularly "strong". I simply recognise that this is a key, perhaps the key, issue we need to address. The future of our economic well being, our success in building a prosperous society lies in giving our schoolchildren the best education we can. And that is before we even consider our duty to try and offer each and every pupil the opportunity to fulfil their own personal potential.

And Did McGuinness prove a barrier to this?

What I will say about Martin McGuinness is that he said what he wanted to do and did it. Rather like Maggie Thatcher, love them or hate them, you have to acknowledge you know where you stand with them on certain issues. Is that the first time Martin McGuiness has been compared to Maggie Thatcher? However, I think his policies on education are wrong. I do not doubt the sincerity of those who want to abolish any form of academic selection to schools and their belief this will improve education opportunities for all. They are just misguided. We all know there will always be some schools performing better than others. Unless we have a factory hidden away somewhere churning out identikit teachers and children, it's inevitable. Parents will want to send their children to the school they think will best suit them. That too is natural. Abolishing academic selection will simply mean allocating places by postcode. As in Edinburgh, people with money will move to areas beside the best schools to ensure places and house prices will soar. Can someone explain to me how that improves the chances of someone from a deprived area to get to a better school? I can't see it. I see no reason to destroy what we do best but see every reason to focus on those areas in which we are not doing well. You watch our politicians as they end up following the example of Diane Abbott and bailing out when they feel they have to!

In the Conservative manifesto the party was critical of Alliance, the SDLP and Women's Coalition, but Sinn Fein escaped opprobrium, prompting me to speculate that there might be something in common between the Tory policy and Sinn Fein's?

I wouldn't read too much into SF not being mentioned in the manifesto - just to put the record straight, SF, Alliance, Women's Coalition are wrong. The SDLP are wrong and a lot of them are hypocrites trying to pull the ladder up after them, the PUP are wrong, the Greens are wrong, the UUP and DUP just flap around. Is that everyone?

No Tory platform is complete without a full frontal assault on crime. And the need for enhanced police powers is at the centre of the Tory manifesto. But the party would do well to read a thoughtful piece penned by the loyalist prisoner Clifford Peeples in Maghaberry Jail for Fortnight which seriously questions the extent to which imprisonment does little other than increase recidivism. But the key concern on my mind was whether he felt Patten had fundamentally altered the RUC?

Only in that it doesn't exist any more! I know republicans love to still refer to the RUC but, from my perspective, that isn't true. You won't find any objections from me on the principle of having a police service drawn from and serving the entire community, nor will you find objections to a service evolving to meet change. Any police service that doesn't is in trouble. You will find objections if the usefulness of that service is compromised by some politically correct requirement. For instance, discrimination is wrong and positive discrimination is also wrong. It doesn't effectively redress the balance and simply builds up further resentment which is why I believe the 50:50 recruitment rules is misguided. I think we would be much better off in directing resources at those areas from which recruitment is low be that defined by religion, geography, race, or gender.

Disliking what I had long viewed as the gung ho militarism of the Conservative Party and its penchant for foreign war criminals such as Augusta Pinochet, I probed Julian on the present bout of adventurism abroad. Why should the voters give their preference to a party that backs the present war on Iraq - or do foreign matters not greatly impact on Northern Irish voters?

Why shouldn't they? Your assumptions are all a bit awry here. First of all, there is no longer a war on Iraq. There is certainly a war in Iraq as the various terrorist groupings have moved in to fight the war against the west. The war on international terrorism is one we can't avoid. Secondly, you assume everyone in Northern Ireland thinks the decision to support the war was wrong - how do you know that? The Conservative Party supported the government because we were led to believe Iraq posed a major threat with the development of WMD - time will tell just how much sexing up went on. Thirdly, of course foreign policy matters to us. Indeed, Irish soldiers were involved too. It also worth noting, the Assembly won't be declaring war on anyone as that is not devolved! Is it?

Well, it declared war on the poor, awarded itself pay rises, cut back on health services, deprived the public of £1million a day from the public purse and began the construction of an environment suitable to the privateers. But overall the Robertson response was typical Tory-speak. Every country the British have ever subjected to armed invasion suddenly appears disproportionately populated with criminal and terrorist types. Inevitably this type of chauvinistic thinking led me closer to home and the Tory record over here during the worst years of the conflict. Both Conservative and Labour talk of the sectarian squabble - but does the Conservative Party not accept any responsibility for the conflict here? Three key events on the watch of the Heath government launched the conflict into an orbit all of its own from which nothing could ground it: Falls Curfew of 1970; internment of 1971 and Bloody Sunday of 1972. How does the chair of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party respond to criticisms that the North would have found peace much sooner were it not for the Tory Party and for that reason the best thing the party could do in the North is disband?

Now, don't make me cross. You could point to any episode and say the same. All you mention are typical of the sordid little war we have come out of and are a stain on us all. As are Teebane, Greysteel, Oxford Street et al. How can anyone look at any incident in isolation and say if that hadn't happened then such and such would / would not have occurred? Could you not point to any number occurrences and say we could have found peace earlier, if only? Should SF not disband as Martin McGuinness admits he led the Derry IRA for a while? Should the DUP not disband because of Ulster Resistance? Should Labour not disband because of Iraq? Perhaps you think they should! The Conservative Party is a Party of the United Kingdom. We can potentially form a government and we wish to have elected representatives in all four parts of the UK. We believe we have and are developing policies to address the issues which affect us all and we want to argue our case and ask for the chance to put them into practice. I believe Northern Ireland has opted out of "proper" politics for too long and it is time we had our input - lets have a few more Irish accents within the Conservative Party I say!

Rich plumy North Down ones I think. But the party leader argues that ‘there is a need to move on beyond the orange/green cleavage and take up the more left/right one.’ That would be all very well if we could find a left. But given that the Conservatives are not allowed to register in the assembly as right, what hat would they wear?

The Conservative candidates believe it is a point of principle worth stating that we would not wish to designate as either but as "Other". I am afraid that our beloved Assembly reinforces sectarianism and the need to identify with a tribe by having the requirement to designate as one or the other. I really, really do not believe this contributes in any way to resolving our differences and pulling together. I listened to Alex Maskey recently in a hustings meeting explain why he believed the designation system was necessary and I can understand the reasoning why people feel the need to have that safety net. However, in the longer term it is self-defeating and we should aim at some stage to get rid of it, replacing it with some sort of majority weighted voting system.

The IRA’s war is over and the organisations objectives are as close to being achieved now as they were in 1974. Sinn Fein is obviously spoofing when it claims there will be a united Ireland in 2016. But do the Conservatives feel there will ever be a united Ireland? Or do they still believe as Tom King did - the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland - that the North would remain within the UK in perpetuity?

Do you know, I don't really know the answer to that one. There is so much in the melting pot to consider over and above any crude religious headcount. How will attitudes change, harden/soften as peace beds down, how will the UK and Ireland's attitude to NI change over time, how will relations between countries change as the European Union progresses or recedes? Obviously, I believe we are best within the UK and I hope that stays the same. If there is to be a united Ireland I feel it is some way off. I would hope that the issue of any referendum, time predictions and such like aren't used along with crude census data to keep the pot boiling from time to time.

The interview completed, I waxed ironical on the situation we find ourselves in today. Julian Robertson may never prove successful as a Tory politician in the North - there is little space for British conservatives in an arena awash with Irish ones. But the British state, to which he gives his allegiance, won its battle in Ireland. The IRA’s war is over and the party of Margaret Thatcher is contesting elections in the North. The British are still here on the very same terms they have been stipulating for decades. Republicans now accept those terms - the British can stay as long as they have the consent of a majority in the North. How many times did Thatcher promise to grind us down until we arrived at this position? Had somebody suggested during the H-Block struggle that this was the way to go they would have been dismissed as working for the other side. The Conservative Party is a pro-Good Friday Agreement party, yet still there remain those who would insist the GFA is revolutionary, never stopping long enough to ask themselves Susan Griffin's uncomfortable question: 'how old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know.' Martin McGuinness, who at least seems to win a grudging admiration from Julian Robertson, has asked for the electorate to vote Sinn Fein ‘down the slate’ and then transfer to other pro-agreement parties. Twenty years ago Sinn Fein leaders were exhorting us to kill the Tories, now they are asking us to vote for them in preference to the socialist Eamonn McCann. Politics - a funny old game, which Oscar Levant perhaps got right when he said of a politician, 'he'll doublecross that bridge when he comes to it.'






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

28 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Where Two or Three Shall Gather...
Liam O Ruairc


Julian Robertson Interviewed

Anthony McIntyre


From the Franklin River to the Chalillo Dam
Toni Solo


Rafah Today
Mohammad Omer


23 November 2003


Raymond Blaney Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


Derry's Ultimate Protest Vote

Eamon Sweeney


Boycott Undemocratic Elections
Andy Martin


Is Northern Ireland A Dangerous Place
Liam O Ruairc


Liam O Comain


Stop Bush
Colin Gregory Palmer


The Learning Experience of Rakan
Mary La Rosa




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