Conservative Diary

Northern Ireland

15 Aug 2013 08:26:56

"No-nonsense Villiers puts her credentials on parade"

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-08-15 at 07.47.56Northern Ireland's marching season has a coat-trailing element, in which loyalists and republicans behave like two antagonists needling and circling each other, probing for a weakness.  Today's Belfast Telegraph reports that a Belfast Grand Black Chapter parade will pass St Patrick's Catholic Church in Donegall Street, that seven police officers were injured at the same event last year, and that the Parades Commission has slapped down restrictions.  The Police Federation wants a ban on all contentious marches: 500 police officers have been injured during the past year - 64 of them last Thursday and Friday.

Loyalist groups helped to fuel last winter's flag protests in Belfast, and their gambits are mirrored by the republicans: Sinn Fein doesn't want to cede ownership of republican mythology and matyrology to "the dissidents", who are an ever-present threat.  (Three men have been arrested after the attempted murder of a police officer who was leaving a police station in Dungannan.)  This helps to explain the recent republican march through Castlederg to commemorate two IRA terrorists who were killed by their own bomb.  Such events can be par for the course in overwhelmingly Catholic villages, such as Carrickmore.  Castlederg, however, has a mixed population, and hundreds of protesters, including relatives of IRA victims, turned out to protest.

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12 Jan 2013 13:09:32

Where are the DUP and Sinn Fein outriders for peace?

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By Paul Goodman

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Every political push needs outriders.  When Tony Blair wanted to float breaking the union link, he got Stephen Byers to do it.  When Conservative modernisers of the time, such as Francis Maude and David Willetts, wanted to change the culture of the Conservative Party, they helped to set up C-Change.  We will hear more from both next Wednesday when Bright Blue launches Modernisation 2.0.

The problems of Northern Ireland, where the Belfast flag protests began in December and are still continuing, is an unpromising venue in which to apply the principle.  The armoured vans, whistling crowds and wailing sirens of Newtonwards Road are a long way away, in several senses, from the restrained surroundings of the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House, where both Willetts and Maude will be speaking next week.

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21 Dec 2012 08:30:57

For as long as the British establishment is ready to hand Northern Ireland to the Republic, unionist insecurity will exist

By Matthew Barrett
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The British establishment is willing to hand Northern Ireland over to the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, many members of the establishment wish those pesky six counties would hurry up and just join the rest of Ireland now. The English, on the whole, either don't know or don't care enough to be particularly bothered about the fate of Northern Ireland. The Scots, from whom many, possibly most, Protestant Ulstermen are descended, may well decide to vote for independence in 2014.

Unionists know that a large number of nationalists who see themselves as Irish do not want a united Ireland at the moment. But Unionists also know that this could well change when the Republic's economy is in a far healthier position than at present. They know that the "Irish-American" lobby is waiting and willing to fund a propaganda campaign to ensure the majority of Northern Ireland votes for unification. Unionists can see, from the 2011 census, that it is only a matter of ten or twenty years before those inclined towards nationalism and unification are in the majority and can replace British Unionists as the dominant political-cultural force in Northern Ireland.

Is it any wonder Unionists feel insecure?

The removal of the flag from Belfast City Hall is merely a visible and symbolic example of the many ways in which (all of) the people of Northern Ireland have been treated differently from their fellow British subjects on the mainland. In recent memory this started with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. That agreement, which was signed by Mrs Thatcher, gave the Republic of Ireland a role, albeit an "advisory" one, in the governance of Northern Ireland for the first time. Unionists had withstood years of the Troubles, constant in their belief that they would be oppressed in a united Irish state, only to see the British state they were loyal to for so long betray them.

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15 Dec 2012 08:05:25

How much of a threat to Northern Ireland's peace is loyalist alienation?

By Paul Goodman
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  • Last week, Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of times the Union Flag can be flown in a year.  Alliance Party councillors voted for the measure. The attempted murder of a police officer later took place outside the office of Naomi Long, the Alliance MP for East Belfast.  She herself received a death threat.  So did Jim McVeigh, a Sinn Fein city councillor.  So did Conall McDevitt, an SDLP MLA.  So did Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Lagan Valley.  And so did Edwin Poots, a DUP MLA for Lagan Valley and a Health Minister in the Northern Ireland Government. The office of Stewart Dickson, an Alliance member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA), was later set alight.  That of William Irwin, a Democratic Unionist Party MLA, was also attacked.
  • This week, David Cameron also responded in the Commons to the report by Sir Desmond de Silva "into the nature and extent of state collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane".  Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP MP for Belfast South, backed the Finucane family's criticism of the report: "We feel that we have still got only half the truth out," he told the House. "This report confirms why Judge Cory was right, as the family were right, to demand an open, international, independent inquiry." However, William McCrea, the DUP MP for South Antrim, said that the Irish Government should "hold a public inquiry into collusion between previous Governments of the Irish Republic and the IRA, including the arming of the Provisional IRA and inflicting 30 years of murder and mayhem on the people of Northern Ireland?"

These three stories, different but also intertwined, have raised the profile of Northern Ireland in the mainland media - never high unless violence or terror takes place - several notches.  So it is perhaps an opportune time to ask if Northern Ireland's troubles, which I briefly reported when working for the Sunday Telegraph during the mid-1990s, are likely to return.

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25 Nov 2012 15:29:58

Theresa Villiers speaks at the DUP's conference - a further sign of improving unionist-Tory relations

By Matthew Barrett
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VILLIERS THERESA NWI have, in the past, noted the occasional subtle overtures the Conservative leadership gives the Democratic Unionist Party. In the event of another hung parliament in which the Conservatives hold just a few more seats than at present - which, with the collapse of the Lib Dems, could be possible - the Democratic Unionist Party's eight MPs would be an extremely convenient coalition option (indeed, probably the only option, apart from the Lib Dems). They may also be very handy during some of the tougher votes the Coalition faces over the coming two years.

While CCHQ might not yet be thinking of Nigel Dodds as the next Deputy Prime Minister, or considering which department Jeffrey Donaldson would be sent to, Conservatives have clearly been aware of the need to keep friendly relations with the DUP.

The next step in the relationship came this weekend when Theresa Villiers addressed the DUP conference. To my knowledge, she is the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to have addressed the party's conference, and also the first Conservative portfolio holder to do so. In other words, I can find no record of either Owen Paterson or David Lidington, the two most recent Conservative Shadow Secretaries, addressing the conference. In years gone by, Conservatives may well have spoken at UUP conferences, but not the DUP's, so this is significant.

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20 Sep 2012 12:26:45

The seven government departments David Cameron should scrap at the next reshuffle

By Matthew Barrett
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At the last reshuffle, David Cameron did something quite unusual: he didn't change the name or purpose of any of his government's departments. During the Blair and Brown years, changes like these were rather common. People may remember the poor Department for Constitutional Affairs, or the old Department of Trade and Industry, or its successor, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which lasted for only two years.

At Mr Cameron's next reshuffle, he could consider changing tactic, and start reducing the number of government departments by merging those which have similar purposes. There are obvious spending benefits to be considered - by keeping some staff from one department, but not retaining those whose function is already performed at the newly merged department - and there are also good reasons for Parliament to want to reduce the number of departments. Many backbenchers complain about the over-mighty executive, and the ability it has to undermine backbenchers by appointing minor payroll jobs like Parliamentary Private Secretaries, as well as the obviously necessary Secretaries and Ministers of State. Reducing the number of these jobs would hand more power to Parliament. 

At the very least, there are some anomalous ministerial postings which could easily be dealt with. Why should the Minister with responsibility for Universities, for example, work at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and not Education?

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27 Jun 2012 13:55:07

Owen Paterson welcomes Queen's handshake with Martin McGuinness

By Tim Montgomerie
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The handshake has happened. Twice in fact. Once when Her Majesty met Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister in private and then, again, in public. Ther Duke of Edinburgh (Earl Mountbatten's uncle nephew) also shook the hand of the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.

On this lunchtime's World at One the Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said it was the right thing to have happened. Noone, he said, should underestimate the pain felt by the royal family at the "appalling" murder of Lord Mountbatten but we all have to look to the future and this was about building a "new Northern Ireland". The Queen should meet all elected public officials during her Jubilee tour, he continued, and didn't have to agree with the political views of everyone she met. He said there was "massive public excitement" across the whole NI community at the Queen's visit and later today 20,000 people were set to greet her when she visits Parliament Buildings.

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23 Jun 2012 08:53:18

Martin McGuinness might as well be photographed waving a Union Flag

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-06-23 at 08.30.50I was the Sunday Telegraph's Northern Ireland correspondent, in so far as it had one, during the run-up to the IRA ceasefire of 1994, and became fascinated by the politics of the Province.  I doorstepped Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair; saw Gerry Adams take holy communion in a Passionist monastery on Crumlin Road; played pool off the Shankill Road.  I wasn't against the three-stranded architecture of the "peace process" in itself, but was fiercely opposed to some of the details that came with it - the early release of murderers from prison, for example, and the abolition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The way in which the Blair Government connived in the ruin of Ulster's political middle ground - the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP - in order to stitch up a sectarian deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein/IRA was also a sinister precedent.  What I didn't know at the time that the latter was wormed through from top to bottom by informers, which itself was a contributor to the ceasefire I was reporting: rumours even touched the reputation of no less senior a republican than Martin McGuinness himself (though I don't believe them).  At any rate, Mr McGuinness is now to shake hands with the Queen when she visits Northern Ireland next week: Sinn Fein realises it cocked it up by boycotting her immaculately successful visit to the Republic last year.

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28 Feb 2012 06:33:50

Owen Paterson wants Belfast to have the same low corporation tax as Dublin

By Tim Montgomerie
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We sometimes talk about the subsidy that Scotland receives from the rest of the UK via the Barnett formula*. But the part of the UK that receives by far the most public sector intervention is Northern Ireland. Public spending accounts for over three quarters of the economy in Northern Ireland (in large part for many obvious historical reasons). In a speech last night, in Belfast, Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, put the figure at a Soviet 77.6%.

Mr Paterson spent most of his speech arguing that the province should embrace the same kind of welfare reforms that Iain Duncan Smith is enacting over here, in London. He made a robust case for paying off Labour's debts. A smaller welfare state and reduced borrowing can only be part of the solution to Northern Ireland's unbalanced economy, however. It's at least as important that Northern Ireland's private sector grows.

In pursuing this aim Owen Paterson has convinced George Osborne to establish a ministerial working party to examine whether the NI Executive and Assembly should have freedom over the rate of its corporation tax. This isn't a small matter. Businesses have flooded into southern Ireland in recent years because it has a much lower corporation tax rate than in the 'Six Counties'/ Ulster. NI has a big enough handicap because of the legacy of the Troubles. A high corporation tax makes it extra hard to compete with the south.

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31 Jan 2012 15:32:49

New Northern Ireland Conservative Party formed in challenge to UUP

By Matthew Barrett
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Today Conservative co-chairman Lord Feldman announced the creation of a new party: the Conservative and Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The Party Board has approved plans for the new Party's creation. The Party will have a seat on the central Party Board, initially with observer status, but gaining full membership as the Party grows. CCHQ says that the Party will be reconstituted on the same basis as the Welsh Conservative Party.

It will have its own Chairman, officers and set of rules, which will be responsible for overseeing the new Party on the ground. Once it has found its feet - CCHQ has published no timetable - it will also have the power to appoint an interim leader before leadership elections take place later in the year. The Conservative Party campaign centre in Bangor, County Down, will remain.

The formation of a new Party is an interesting development in Northern Irish politics. Some would have been tempted to abandon attempts to establish the Conservative brand in the province following the poor showing the Party made in the last general election, when candidates from the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party stood under the banner "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force" (UCUNF). 

Although 102,361 votes were cast for UCUNF, which is only a few short of the SDLP, who won three seats, the Party only came second in East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down, South Antrim, Strangford, and Upper Bann. Almost all of those seats voted overwhelmingly for Unionist parties, and there was a modest swing away from UCUNF of 2.6% (as compared to the UUP's 2005 result).

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