Friday, 28 May 2010

Minister's Meddling in Museum

Nelson McCausland, our Minister for Culture and the Arts has managed to turn Northern Ireland into a laughing stock across the world.

The focus of much criticism of the Minister has been on his insistence that creationism be promoted, and while he has thereby turned himself, and thereby the executive, into an object of ridicule, this masks the much more serious issue of Ministerial interference.

Museums in Northern Ireland are run by an arms length organisation, National Museums Northern Ireland. While they are accountable to DCAL, and through DCAL to the public, the whole point of such bodies is that they should have operational independence.

The text of the Minister’s letter does not appear to be publicly available, but reported accounts make it seem that he was attempting to influence the types of exhibits and exhibitions displayed by the Museum in accordance with his own personal interests and beliefs. Surely the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect that their museums will be run independently and professionally, as they are at present, without undue interference from the minister in charge. It is perfectly proper for any member of the public to make suggestions as to displays and topics for display, and I am sure such suggestions come in on a regular basis. I have no doubt they are considered by management on their merits; but the Minister who holds the purse strings is the very person who should not do so. He imperils the independence of the board of trustees.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Unionist Unity or Normal Politics?

Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters has called for unionist unity, ‘one big unionist party which represents all the views I hear.’ This theme ran through the recent election campaign. I heard it on the doorstep; it is called for by the DUP; it is mentioned in internal UUP meetings; and it is one of the areas to be discussed in Sir Reg’s review.

It clearly means different things to different people.

For the person on the doorstep, the alternative phrasing is ‘Why can’t yez all get together?’ I have a high regard for the people I met who told me this, but as far as I can tell, they all have one thing in common; they are good people who want to get on with their own lives knowing that the country will be governed properly, and that the only input required of them is to vote every now and then. They prefer not to be involved politically, and some have a folk memory of a peaceful pre troubles past where Unionism was one monolithic party.

For the DUP the call comes because of political opportunism; they were anxious that their performance in the election would be affected by sleaze, expenses, relationships with developers and personal relationships and scandals. They wanted to counter our offer to the electorate to bring Northern Ireland into the mainstream of British politics, not because they are opposed to the idea, but because it was not them doing it, and because they wanted to remain top dogs. They saw it as an opportunity to damage the UUP, and to destabilize our growing relationship with the Conservative Party. They were worried about the new type of unionism we are offering; a unionism which plays a full part in British politics.

Within the UUP there remain a number of members who were not wholehearted about the UUP/Conservative link, and they use the mantra of Unionist unity to continue this fight. Equally there are some members who are rightly upset at our loss of seats in Westminster, and take the view that our Conservative link did not work. They are wrong, and I will return to this theme another time.

Who would unite with whom? And why? Against whom?

We had a united Unionist candidate in Fermanagh, and it didn’t work – the unionist vote went down.
Would all strands of unionism come together in one big party? Jim Allister’s TUV rump, PUP, the monolithic authoritarian Paisley driven DUP and the highly democratic UUP ? The only issue that unites these disparate parties is the border issue; and that was settled comprehensively in 1998. There remain significant differences between the parties in ‘normal’ politics.

And what would it achieve? In Fermanagh not only did the combined unionist vote go down; the nationalist vote coalesced in the direction of Sinn Fein. We would end up with two large blocks of votes, unionist and nationalist, perpetuating the politics of the past, and ensuring that the border remains a live issue, even though the constitutional settlement of 1998 with the consent principle settles the issue once and for all.

For us to have healthy politics it is essential to have normal political choices within unionism. Equally within nationalism there must remain choice. We should not be driving the nationalist community into the arms of an abstentionist party.

One of the key aims of our Conservative link is to move Northern Ireland away from the narrowly based politics of the past, to bring us into the mainstream of British politics, so we can all play a full role in the state. The SDLP have a loose link with the Labour Party; Alliance has a loose arrangement with the LibDems. The seeds are sown for normal politics to evolve in Northern Ireland.

Yet the DUP and its allies seem determined to prevent this happening. Their calls for unionist unity are getting more strident; they have infected some in our own party; they have enlisted the Orange Order (and we remember how the order took the principled decision to sever the link with our own party to ensure it stopped being associated with one party alone).

The DUP brand of Unionism is to hold out the begging bowl, to grab all it can for ‘our wee Norn Iron’. They are making common cause with the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. As the lead party in the Executive they have made common cause with Sinn Fein in made a mess of governing. Anyone who listens to their calls is making a mistake.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Where now?

In this election campaign the DUP campaigned on a platform of wishing for a hung parliament. They got what they wanted.

And did they get any benefit from this result? No. I listened to Jeffrey Donaldson on the Nolan programme the other day making it clear that there had been no contact with the Conservatives, ‘not even a phone call’, as he said petulantly.

Of course we were disappointed not to have done better in the election. But if this had been a PR election we would have won three seats, and if it was an Assembly election we would have added to the eighteen seats gained last time. This is not the result of a party or a project rejected by the electorate.

It is all too easy after the event to pick over the entrails and talk about what went wrong, and there is a place for that; but it is best done behind closed doors and only in so far as there are lessons to be learned for the future. We should not be indulging in ‘blame game’ politics or calling for heads to roll.

I believe we should strongly resist siren voices calling for so-called ‘Unionist unity’. Two years ago we started down the path of linking up with the Conservative Party, offering a vision of bringing normal politics to Northern Ireland, moving away from the narrow sectional tribal politics we have had for decades. We had a good result in the European election, not as good as we hoped in this election, but then the Conservative Party nationwide did not have as good a result as it would have hoped for.

If we continue to build on our alliance with the Conservative Party, we will be continuing to offer an opportunity to truly cement the union by remaining a part of the party of government, in a position not dissimilar to the Scottish Conservative Party.

But if we go down the route of ‘Unionist unity’, what will happen – we will be absorbed into the DUP. I believe they are not truly a Unionist party at all, but more like an Ulster Nationalist Party. It is only necessary to refer to on comment from them: ‘England’s difficulty is Ulster’s opportunity’ to sum them up.

They have no thought for the good of the country as a whole. They are simply holding out their begging bowl to ask that they get preferential treatment over and above any other part of the UK. Their line in the election paralleled that of SNP and Plaid Cymru. One wonders if there is in fact any Unionism left within that party, or are they content for it to be obvious that they are an Ulster Nationalist Party.

If we were to end up with one Unionist bloc, how long would it be before Sinn Fein absorbed the SDLP, and we would be left with a single nationalist bloc also. But if we continue to offer national politics, particularly if other parties such as Labour come in as well, then support will be drawn off from DUP and Sinn Fein, who feed off each other, and political life will be healthier.

Friday, 7 May 2010

First thoughts of the morning after

In Lagan Valley we fought a good clean honest campaign, a grass roots campaign.
Our vote across Northern Ireland and in Lagan Valley reached its low point in 2007 (18.6% in Lagan Valley).

In this election we have improved on that result locally (21.1%) and across Northern Ireland. (The NI figures can’t be compared yet because we still await Fermanagh and South Tyrone.)

My selection process was only completed in February. I was a new candidate, up against an incumbent who had been there for years. Jeffrey’s majority is greatly reduced.

I believe we have turned the corner, and can look forward to building on this result for the future.

I had a great team of campaigners, and I thank each and every one of them.

One last comment this morning – nearly 29,000 electors didn’t vote in Lagan Valley at all.

Monday, 3 May 2010

With Nick Herbert in Lisburn

Nick Herbert, Shadow Environment Minister came to join me on the canvass trail in Lisburn today. During this campaign I have been joined by four members of the shadow cabinet and a senior MEP. No-one can be in any doubt as to the commitment of the Conservative Party to Northern Ireland.

And a vote for me on Thursday is a vote for the Conservative Party.

A vote for any other candidate is a vote for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. While Nick Herbert was canvassing Bow Street with me, David was writing to the Prime Minister in response to Shaun Woodward’s partisan comments in the Guardian. This is David’s letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing to see if the views expressed by Shaun Woodward, as our Secretary of State, in the Guardian on 2 May accurately reflect government policy.

The Secretary of State has already declared he is neutral on the Union. The Belfast Agreement is not neutral, it upholds the right of the people of Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. A Secretary of State for NI might be able to justify a general approach of neutrality as between the political parties in Northern Ireland. But by explicitly attacking the Ulster Unionist election arrangements he is effectively asking unionists to vote for the DUP.

I therefore must ask you is it the policy of the Labour party to be neutral on the union and to encourage support for the DUP? Do you, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom value the union with Northern Ireland?

I also have to say that it is completely unacceptable to suggest as does the Secretary of State in the Guardian article that David Cameron and Reg Empey are somehow “strengthening the hand of dissident republican terrorists" and I would hope that you would restrain the Secretary of State from making such intemperate comments. Perhaps you would encourage him to show some concern that for the first time in 88 years the police are unavailable to protect voters in the environs of our polling stations during this election.

You may also want to consider the Secretary of State’s apparent lack of concern about the recent budget cuts in NI of £435 million, resulting in Health immediately losing £113 million. Is such an assault on frontline public services congruent with Labour party policy? And if not, should not the Secretary of State have a position on the matter?

Yours sincerely,

David Trimble
The Rt. Hon the Lord Trimble

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The start of a new era

Husband David was doing the grocery shopping in Tesco’s, as he has done since the campaign started. At the checkout, the girl on the checkout desk asked him how my campaign was going, and he replied conventionally.

She then said, 'I see it as the start of a new era'.

That is truly what we want to deliver, locally in Lagan Valley, across Northern Ireland, and nationwide.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

One week to go!

Canvassing Lisburn market with Mark Francois, shadow Minister for Europe

By this time next week the polls will have closed, and we will be awaiting the results of the count with bated breath.

And this has been the most fascinating election I have ever been involved with. It is the first election where the key issue on the doorstep has been the economy. That scarcely ever was mentioned in any previous election campaign; and it is our party that has made sure it is mentioned, because it is our party, and only our party that will have the opportunity to influence economic policy in a new parliament.

Yet again we are driving the agenda, and others would like to follow.

I am meeting more and more voters who tell me they voted DUP last time, and will vote for me this time. I am also meeting lots of voters who still have not quite decided who to vote for. Sometimes we take the democratic process too much for granted. I have great respect for all the hundreds and thousands of individual voters across, in my case Lagan Valley, but in total across the whole country, who are taking their right to vote as a serious duty, and giving careful thought and consideration as to who they should vote for.

As we move into the last week of the campaign, I am so grateful to the great network of volunteers who make up my campaign team – you know who you are, and thanks.
Thanks too, to the Conservative part of our partnership for being so supportive.  On Tuesday I was canvassing in Lisburn market with two members of the shadow cabinet, Owen Patterson and Mark Francois, shadow minister for Europe.

People in Lagan Valley have been following the leaders’ debates, and for the first time we are able to offer them the opportunity to vote for one of the national parties, and that is what they want. The challenge is for the other national parties to offer the same opportunity next time round. Then we will truly have normalised politics in Northern Ireland.