Conservative Diary

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The recent talks with the UUP and DUP were all about trying to bolster peace and security in Northern Ireland

UK map with union jack flag Ben Brogan wrote a bracing and indignant polemic on his blog yesterday championing David Cameron’s right to be a Unionist politician, which Tim highlighted here.  It’s essential, Ben wrote, “to find political ways to ensure Sinn Fein doesn’t end up the winner as the result of the failure of Unionism in Northern Ireland to get its electoral act together” (and such ways, incidentally, don’t necessitate a DUP/UUP merger).

This is the first reason why we were right to promote the recent talks between pro-Union parties.  But there’s also a second reason, which has nothing to do with promoting the Union – or dishing Sinn Fein - and has everything to do with saving the peace in Northern Ireland.  It’s to our credit, and has been so far neglected by the mainstream media.

The best way in which to begin thinking about the current political deadlock is as follows.  If the devolution of policing doesn’t take place, the Northern Ireland Executive will probably collapse, to be followed by Assembly elections – only a few weeks before a general election, if we assume May 6 or later.

These elections will almost certainly take place against a fragile security situation.  A simple net search finds that only yesterday, for example, police shots were fired in Carrowdore, County Down.  I wrote on Monday about the possibility of Northern Ireland’s political settlement and security stability unravelling – right at the very start of a Cameron Government.

Owen Paterson thus had a second reason to encourage talks between Northern Ireland’s two largest parties.  As Ben argued, the first reason – finding a common understanding from a pro-Unionist perspective – isn’t dishonourable.  After all, Irish political parties will sometimes discuss politics from a nationalist view with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and at the same time.

But the second reason boasts - to echo an old phrase from the politics of the Province – no “selfish, strategic or economic interest”.  As I say, the only way of preventing the Executive’s collapse is the devolution of policing.  The DUP are more likely to agree it if the UUP back them up.  This is the outcome that Owen was trying to achieve at Hatfield House, thus averting a crisis on the watch of a future Conservative Government and, more importantly, bolstering peace and security in Ulster.

Downing Street was therefore recklessly irresponsible yesterday to brief against the Unionist-Conservative talks.  You may or may not support the devolution of policing.  But the Conservative front bench does – and it’s preposterous for Brown’s spin machine to criticise us for seeking to bring about an outcome which they themselves support.  It’s noticeable that Sinn Fein hasn’t jumped on the Downing Street bandwagon to date.  Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP has – but his Party, of course, takes the Labour whip at Westminster, and he’s fighting a leadership election within the week.

Brown is trying to have it both ways.  If we’d not sought to ensure the devolution of policing, we’d be accused of “standing back and letting the peace process collapse”.   Now that we have, we’re apparently “endangering Northern Ireland peace”.  Shouldn’t the Prime Minister be pouring oil on Ulster’s troubled waters rather than fuel on a small media fire?  I wrote on Monday that Northern Ireland can’t be fully covered from the mainland.  But some things are obvious even from here.

Paul Goodman

> The Times this morning peddles the charge being made by political opponents that the talks were about an electoral pact


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