David Cameron today launched the Tories’ European election manifesto. Conservative and Unionist candidate, Jim Nicholson, attended the event, in Rossendale Lancashire. After a turbulent week for his campaign, culminating with tabloid revelations that a UDA ‘brigadier’ may have been involved in erecting UCUNF election posters in North Belfast, Nicholson will be delighted to concentrate, for a day at least, on the message of change in Europe, which he is charged with communicating to voters in Northern Ireland.
Although neither Nicholson, nor any other senior Ulster Unionist, bears responsibility for a baleful grassroots error, the Sunday World story carried an unfortunate echo of ‘ancestral voices’ characterising a brand of unionism which the new force is keen to repudiate. Unfortunately the influence of paramilitaries is pervasive in many working class areas of Belfast. That is not to offer an excuse for the oversight, but goes someway to explain that it is sometimes not easy to disentangle these deplorable groups from the communities in which they have embedded themselves. O’Neill has laid out clearly his favoured course of action and I do not disagree with it one iota.
Cameron used his speech today to underscore the ‘change’ motif which his party’s campaign is emphasising. The Conservative leader took the opportunity to challenge Gordon Brown to call a general election, as soon after the Euro elections as is practicable. And he also unveiled a pledge which prospective members of the Conservative group of MEPs must sign.
Nicholson (and others) will be expected, in carrying out their duties as members of the parliament, to:
• Publish a breakdown of all office costs, signed off by a certified accountant.
• Publish details of all travel, including journeys to and from Brussels and Strasbourg and trips to any third countries.
• Publish the names of all staff, contractors and ‘paying agents’ engaged by us.
• Publish all expenses claims online and update them on a quarterly basis. Details included in the Register of Members’ Interests will be published on the Conservative MEPs’ website – providing a ‘one stop shop’ for members of the public to access full disclosure details of their Conservative MEPs’ expenses.
• Continue to oppose – and vote against – any bailout of the MEP pension fund using public money.
• Publish online details of all meetings with lobbyists and interest groups. We will only accept hospitality from lobbyists and interest groups where it is relevant to the role of an MEP, and where this is of a value greater than £50 it will be listed in the Register of Members’ Interests. No Conservative MEP will accept gifts from lobbyists or interest groups.
• Press for these standards to be applied across the European Parliament.
On the economy:
• Keep Britain out of the euro.
• Support the return of social and employment legislation to national control.
• Work for an open and flexible Europe that brings down trade barriers, both within and outside the EU, and set a
course for other countries to join the EU subject to a rigorous accession process.
• Work to cut the administration costs of EU legislation by 25 per cent.
• Defend our opt-out from the Working Time Directive.
And on efficiency:
• Oppose wasteful spending throughout the EU, including calling for an end to European Parliament meetings in Strasbourg.
• Work to save up to 1 billion Euro a year and for a firm cap on the EU budget.
• Continue to vote against the EU accounts until they are cleared by an auditor.
• Defend the UK's rebate so we do not pay more than our fair share.
• Press for legislation to provide greater transparency, access to documents and freedom of information in relation to EU institutions.
This is a meaningful programme and one which commits the United Kingdom’s largest group of representatives in the European Parliament to impacting European politics for the better. It is a message which must not be undermined, in Northern Ireland, by carelessness, thoughtlessness or irresolution. To authentically change politics in Northern Ireland there must be genuine will to banish the thinking of the past.