Owen Paterson MP: A week in the life of the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Thursday 13th March
Arrive in good time at the BBC Belfast Studios for their “Let’s Talk” show (Northern Ireland Question Time). I’m on with Alastair Campbell, Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP, Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein and David McNarry, UUP. Not one of the subjects I mug up on comes up; not worth spending £25 on Alastair’s book.
Friday 14th March
Huge Ulster fry before spending a day with Mark Durkan in Londonderry. We walk down to the Bogside to see the Bloody Sunday Trust museum. They are unhappy about my recent comments that the £181 million so far spent on Saville could possibly have been better spent on projects helping the present and the future. A complete contrast next at the University of Ulster; I am shown their Intelligent Systems Research Centre.
On to the old Ebrington Barracks site where there is a magnificent star fort across the Foyle from the walled city. Plans to link it to the city with a bridge would create one of the great sites of Europe. Next, a brief stop at Tinney’s Bar to watch the Gold Cup. The media show up to film my reaction.
On to Newtownstewart to meet West Tyrone Voice who work to help people who lost relatives to paramilitary terrorism; they provide the families of victims with a variety of services. Public money spent helping victims must do more good than expensive public inquires which mainly benefit lawyers. Across to Bangor for the North Down Conservatives’ Supper Club which is well attended. I stress that we are the only national party to put up candidates in every part of the UK.
Saturday 15th March
Gruesome early morning flight ending up in Washington late afternoon. Stay with friends in Virginia who over dinner dissect the mistakes of the Clinton campaign and predict that John McCain will beat either Democrat candidate.
Sunday 16th March
Visit Harpers Ferry, the scene of John Brown’s abortive raid, one of the triggers of the Civil War and also the site of Stonewall Jackson’s famous siege.
Dinner at Lutyens’s magnificent British Embassy. Shaun Woodward says if Policing and Justice are devolved, he hopes that he will be the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I think that he’s wrong. Northern Ireland still has a long way to go. There is an important role for someone to represent it in the British Cabinet or discuss its concerns at the highest level in Dublin and Washington.
Monday 17th March
St Patrick’s Day. Northern Ireland Bureau Breakfast. After Margaret Ritchie and Martin McGuiness speak, Paula Dobriansky, the President’s Special Envoy makes it clear how committed the US still is to Northern Ireland. Jeffrey Donaldson, recently promoted to junior Minister, speaks last and is impressive. There is a huge sense of relief that Northern Ireland has come so far; everyone is urged to support the investment conference in May.
Walk to the White House. The highlight is the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern presenting the President with a bowl of shamrock. Ahern reflects the euphoria about the changes in Northern Ireland and reminds everyone that an Irish architect built the White House and helped rebuild it in 1814. George Bush is looking older now but has the same boyish twinkle and can’t resist pointing out that it was the British that burnt the place down. It is striking how big a role the British representation has on this very Irish day. The Ambassador’s Rolls Royce is slotted into the presidential motorcade to Capitol Hill with Shaun Woodward aboard. I cram into a minibus behind Martin McGuiness and while explaining what a Privy Councillor is to Paula Dobriansky, Gerry Adams squashes in behind. Barrelling down Pennsylvania Avenue with all the side streets shut off, I comment to Paula how my 20 odd colleagues who served in Northern Ireland would react to all this.
Arrive at the Capitol for the Speaker’s lunch. More speeches by Ahern and Bush. The latter admits “I love St Patrick’s Day; I loved it more when I drank!” I meet the Speaker briefly and stress how important America’s continuing involvement is to Northern Ireland. Further meetings afterwards with members of the Administration and discussions on devolution of Policing and Justice.
On to the Irish Embassy where a vast party assembles. The Guinness flowing freely, the Taoiseach ad libs and has them eating out of his hand. We meet briefly and he says “we should be keeping in touch with you guys.” Nothing like being 16 points ahead in the polls!
Dinner with Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation. We discuss how the special relationship has cooled under Gordon Brown.
Tuesday 18th March
Train to New York. Meet the Irish Consul General, who is full of useful comment. We agree that the Assembly must deliver concrete results. It is good that the councils have been resolved with a workable compromise. The rest of the day is spent in a whole series of meetings with Irish Americans, organised by the British Consulate General. There is wide appreciation of how much Northern Ireland has improved. I keep repeating how 29% of the workforce work in the public sector and Northern Ireland has an £8 billion subvention over and above what is raised in taxation. There needs to be a 20 year programme of private investment and American support for the investment conference is vital. One group does not appreciate how far Northern Ireland has moved on and is particularly exercised by public inquires into collusion. I cannot accept their belief that a murder due to collusion with government authorities is of a higher degree than a murder by a terrorist. All violent death is horrible.
Wednesday 19th March
Fly back to London to sign over 100 letters around midnight.
Thursday 20th March
Red eye flight to Belfast and travel to Hillsborough where I join The Queen’s motorcade to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. Driving around the constituency is going to be pretty tame after all these police escorted journeys. The British police appear to be subtler at handling other drivers than their American cousins. The Maundy Service is extraordinarily moving. It is the first time the service has been held in Northern Ireland; all religions are represented. The star was undoubtedly The Queen who managed to give individual attention to every person who received the Maundy money; I will never forget the look on their faces.
Finally, lunch at the Armagh public library with a host of senior churchmen. I sound them out on how we handle the past bearing in mind the Greek inscription over the door of the Library “The healing place of the soul.”