By Matthew Barrett
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Mike Nesbitt, a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Strangford, has been elected Ulster Unionist Party leader at the UUP's annual conference, with 81% of the vote.
54 year-old Nesbitt, a former presenter of evening news programme UTV Live, who was elected to the NI Assembly in last year's elections, beat John McCallister, an MLA for South Down since 2007, by 536 votes to 129.
Nesbitt's message during the campaign has been one of inclusion. He said:
"I want everyone in this country to get out of bed with a sense of purpose, I want this party to wake up with a sense of purpose. I want us to reach out to become the party of choice for every pro-union voter in Northern Ireland, including those who still say they want a united Ireland, but privately accept there is no longer a single reason not to enjoy their continued membership of the United Kingdom."
The key campaign issue has been whether to take the UUP out of the Northern Irish Executive, and thus become the major opposition party. At present the Executive is also formed of the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance, and the SDLP, and the UUP are guaranteed a Ministerial position as part of their membership. John McCallister campaigned in favour of leaving the Executive, and Nesbitt wanted to remain a part of it. Nesbitt is also said to favour continuing the UUP's link with the Conservative Party.
Nesbitt's acceptance speech, via Slugger O'Toole:
Shadow Northen Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson spoke for the Conservatives yesterday on the Northern Ireland Bill. The central purpose of the bill is to transfer responsibility for policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly from Parliament - but only once the Assembly requests it and Parliament agrees.
Mr Paterson thanked the Secretary of State (former Tory Shaun Woodward) and his officials, before outlining the Conservative position:
"The last Conservative Government began the peace process, and their work was built on by the current Labour Government. As I said in the debate on the programme motion, it has always been our policy in opposition to set party politics aside on issues concerning Northern Ireland, and broadly to support the Government in their approach to the peace process and devolution.
In doing so, we have not given the Government a blank cheque, however. While trying to be as supportive as possible, we have made constructive and detailed criticisms.
At the outset, I reconfirm that we emphatically support the Belfast agreement and the current devolved institutions that followed on from it. We would like to see the institutions that were established by ensuing agreements working effectively for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland. We have therefore always supported the eventual devolution of criminal justice and policing, when the conditions were right and once the proposed model for devolution had the support of all communities. Devolution of criminal justice and policing was, after all, envisaged in the Belfast agreement and re-affirmed in the joint declaration of 2003, and subsequently at St. Andrews in 2006.
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson yesterday challenged his opposite number Shaun Woodward.
The Secretary of State had announced that following advice from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, he was extending the weapons decommissioning amnesty to February 2010. This amnesty comes under the provisions of the 1997 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride (whose husband Andrew Mackay is a former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary) made a particularly persuasive point:
"Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?
Mr. Woodward: Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice."
Mr Paterson later weighed in:
"Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?
Mr. Woodward: The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.
Mr. Paterson: The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?
Mr. Woodward: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman that it would be possible through the usual channels to discuss with him further details, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him."
Conservative members are right to raise these concerns. Northern Ireland may be unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, but its residents are no less entitled to protection from gangsterism and violence than anyone else.
On 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry in Northern Ireland, a civil rights procession took place (in defiance of a Stormont ban on parades and marches). Demonstrators - protesting against internment without trial - approached a barbed wire Army barricade. A variety of missiles were hurled. Members of the Parachute Regiment opened the gates and sent armoured vehicles into the crowd.
Thirteen people were shot dead. Another person later died from their injuries. A number of others were injured. Protestors claimed that the shooting was unprovoked. The Army claimed that they responded to shots from two snipers.
The events of what is now called Bloody Sunday have been an ungoing source of immense tension. The tribunal which reported a few weeks afterwards was condemned as a whitewash. In 1998 Tony Blair established the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, also known as the Saville Inquiry after the Law Lord in charge of proceedings. Formal hearings began in 2000. There has still not been any report.
Yesterday Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson asked about this in the House of Commons:
It is being reported that the Executive deadlock in Northern Ireland (which has lasted since June) might be about to come to an end. The DUP and Sinn Fein are apparently both making preparations in Stormont.
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson has been vocal recently condemning the stalemate, describing it as an "absolute disaster" economically. He has also said:
"Gone, it seems, is any hope of major US investment bringing both new jobs and investment to the country. Instead of holding the country to ransom, the DUP and particularly Sinn Fein need to get back around the table and sort these problems out the mature way."
The parties are in disagreement over the devolution of responsibility for policing. Sinn Fein believed that they had a deal from the St Andrews talks in Scotland in 2006 that a local minister would take the policing and justice job. The DUP denied this. Last August a new deal seemed imminent, as both parties agreed they wouldn't take the job, and that a minister should be elected with cross community backing. But no settlement has been reached.
Following weekend talks, there apparently is a chance that this might be about to change.
During questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, asked a supplementary question about the devolution of responsibility for criminal justice and policing.
It is worth noting that the Secretary of State (and former Conservative MP) Shaun Woodward did not rule out bringing forward legislation in event of a local lack of agreement on the matter.
The Executive in Northern Ireland has not met since June.
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, asks about the negotiations in the lead up to establishing the new NI Executive but Shaun Woodward starts talking about 42 days instead. Owen Paterson:
Owen Paterson:"There has been widespread speculation about the detail of the talks and the agreement leading up to the establishment of the new Executive. What was the deal and does it have any budget implications?"
Shaun Woodward: "As always, the hon. Gentleman gets excited about his questions, but I am going to have to disappoint him. There was no deal and therefore there are no financial implications."
Owen Paterson: "I thought that the Ulster White was a rare pig, now sadly extinct. I did not realise that it had been reincarnated in flying form. We know that there were tense and difficult negotiations in Downing street with the Prime Minister. There was clearly an agreement, because the Executive was reformed, which was good news. The Secretary of State has already mentioned the figure of £6 million, which was announced by the president of Sinn Fein rather than the Secretary of State. Devolution of criminal justice and policing has been mentioned, as have water rates, the sale of military sites and education. Why will not the Secretary of State tell us what the deal was?"
Shaun Woodward: "The short answer is that there was no deal. The hon. Gentleman mentions the £6 million for the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund. This may have escaped him, but I do not think that Sinn Fein took its places to vote on the matter of 42 days last week. The hon. Gentleman should be very careful, because he is impugning the reputation of a number of Members from Northern Ireland who are highly principled on the matter of counter-terrorism. I suggest that before he gives lectures to Members of the DUP, he should pay attention to one of the most principled parties in the House when it comes to the business of building a robust framework of counter-terrorism legislation."
More from Hansard here.