Thursday, 21 January 2010

No Conservative interest in DUP pact

In today's Belfast Telegraph I argue that interpretations of the famed weekend meeting have spun out of control.

A meeting between the shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson and representatives of the UUP and DUP has been interpreted by some commentators as a sign three-party coalition could be imminent. It is a rather fanciful reading of some mundane facts.

A Conservative spokesman confirmed that Paterson did meet senior unionists in England at the weekend. The stated aim was to "promote greater political stability" in Northern Ireland.

On the political website Slugger O'Toole one blogger was quick to suggest that the Tories were shoring up unionist support in case the forthcoming General Election results in a hung Parliament. It is an analysis that sources in the DUP have been eager to encourage and Conservative sources have denied.

The truth is that there is an explanation that is simpler and much more plausible.

Negotiations over the devolution of policing and justice have reached a critical phase. Although the Conservative Party has insisted that its Ulster Unionist partner has the right to develop an independent strategy on policing and justice, both David Cameron and Owen Paterson have expressed their preference for early devolution. Sir Reg Empey, too, has consistently maintained that the UUP is not opposed to a Justice Minister at Stormont. At a crucial juncture in the policing and justice saga the Tories have simply brought the unionist factions together in an attempt to iron out their differences over this issue.

Certainly there is an agenda to the meeting. The Tories would like to overcome the justice logjam. At national and local level it has been more positive about the prospects of devolution than the UUP. No doubt Owen Paterson is eager to give the DUP an opportunity to address Ulster Unionist concerns.

Power-sharing institutions are once again teetering on the brink of collapse and Paterson is due to inherit any mess that might result. It would be surprising if a prospective Secretary of State were not engaged in attempts to keep the Assembly afloat. After all, some pollsters predict the Tories will be in government in less than six months' time.

Pointing no fingers, but did anybody mention Ian Paisley Junior (not reportedly at the meeting).

The DUP is desperate to avoid leaking thousands of votes to the 'New Force' and its strategists calculate that it might be able to offset the worst damage by appealing to 'unionist unity'. The party recently delivered 20,000 leaflets in the South Belfast constituency making the case for agreed candidates. It has wheeled out its big hitters, repeatedly, to drive home the message.

Conservatives and Unionists, meanwhile, maintain that every elector in Northern Ireland should be given an opportunity to vote for a candidate who can form part of the next Government. It is an aim in which the parties have too much invested to backtrack. In the wake of allegations over the DUP meeting the Tories have reaffirmed that all 18 constituencies here will be contested by UCUNF at the election. It suits the DUP to insinuate that the Tories' commitment is not set in stone. It also suits the SDLP to contend that the meeting potentially offends some principle of impartiality or that it represents a distraction.

In actuality few eyebrows would be raised if an opposition party from the Republic were to hold talks with the nationalist parties across the border. And if Owen Paterson can influence positively the practice of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, surely he has a responsibility to do so?

1 comment:

Jeffrey Peel said...

Owen, you may be correct that the DUP is spinning things. However the UUP is putting forward few if any compelling candidates, the candidate line-up announcement has been delayed repeatedly and the Tories should never have organised this meeting in the first place - it would never have happened had I been on the Area Exec. Moreover it's not just me. I spoke to a leading Tory grandee yesterday and he was literally fuming about this meeting and implied that Paterson should be summarily fired from the Shadow Cabinet.

In short we are being judged by the company we keep.

Moreover it's not just the DUP that's spinning it's also the UUP dead-wood that would like some type of pact. What on earth was what nonsense that Danny Kennedy was spouting at Stormont yesterday? It sounded word-identical to Paisley Junior's form of words on Radio Ulster yesterday morning. Pathetic.