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.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Hung Parliament? Be Careful What You Wish For Mr. Robinson

Relishing a hung parliament, as appears to be the case with the DUP's Peter Robinson and Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, is a dangerous position to take. Just imagine for one moment how that political horse trading would look on May 7th, with Salmond, no lover of the UK and the DUP, who we are told are Unionists, working together in some sort of grand coalition? It could not work.
Nobody in their right mind would actively welcome a hung Parliament, the last time the UK electorate returned that sort of result marked a descent into paralysis and indecision economically and politically.

Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole need a clear outcome from this election if we are to see real action on the many issues that need to be addressed. We need a government with a clear mandate to tackle the big questions surrounding the economy, public services and defence. The “those are my principles and if you don't like them I have others” approach to politics, as followed by the DUP and the UK's nationalist parties, does not bring about a strong government with a clear vision for the United Kingdom.

The political uncertainty from hung a Parliament might give Peter Robinson's ego a short lived boost due to the extra influence he thinks it gives him but be under no illusion we would all suffer in the longer term. Be careful what you wish for Peter as it may just come true. Returning a strong national government of Conservatives and Unionists is the only way to ensure we in Northern Ireland have real influence in the next Parliament and help cement our place at the heart of the UK.

Monday, 19 April 2010

An interesting contrast during Saturday afternoon’s canvass in Lisburn

We met two voters who told us that they had always been strong Alliance supporters, but this time they were going to vote for Conservatives and Unionists. They both said that they approved of the link up because it brings Northern Ireland closer to normal politics.

On the other hand we met a voter who said that he had always voted Ulster Unionist in Westminster, but could not do so this time because he was a natural Labour supporter and could not vote Conservative. He told us that in recent PR elections for the Council or Assembly he voted UU and SDLP.

We suggested to him that he might consider a tactical vote.

Despite repeated efforts by Northern Ireland based Labour supporters, Labour still refused to put up candidates here. But if Conservatives do well here in this election then there will be immense pressure in Labour to put up candidates in the next election and so bring us another step closer to normal politics.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Some campaigning pics

Today we went to the Electoral Office in Banbridge to nominate. While forming up for a photo by the local press this snap was taken. There will be no prizes for spotting the prominent member of the Upper Bann Association who happened to be passing and quickly donned a rosette for the occasion.

This was the first outing in campaigning rig of our rather elderly Espace which had spent the previous day being decorated as below.

A couple of days ago we had a visit by Conservative shadow agriculture minister Jim Paice. He was accompanied by our MEP, Jim Nicholson. I happened to have a trailer with my poster handy. This is an informal shot while preparing for the press.

The two Jims then proceeded to the farm of Joanne Dobson, who so convincingly won the Lurgan by election in January. Here they are pictured accompanied on the left by Upper Bann Assembly member George Savage and on the right by Upper Bann Conservative and Unionist candidate Harry Hamilton. Harry’s campaign is going very well. David and I spent some time with him in Portadown last Friday and we are really looking forward to him taking that seat back.

While at Joanne’s a camera crew arrived for an interview.

In between these we have some pictures of a morning spent canvassing in Lisburn market.

Here I being accompanied by an old friend, Councillor Ronnie Crawford, who has just completed his term as Mayor of Lisburn .

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Canvassing in Edenderry

Late home from a very full day's campaigning; starting in Lisburn market this morning. I expected to see other parties there, but we were left the sole political representatives. Where are the other parties?

Then an afternoon in the most southern parts of the constituency, followed by an evening in the most northern part; Edenderry at Shaws Bridge. David remembers canvassing here in 1975 when he stood in South Belfast, and it was then part of South Belfast. Again, responses are positive. I heard rumours of DUP leafleting in the Antrim Road area of Lisburn. Posters aside, this is the first indication I have had that any other local party is working on the ground.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Monday 12 April

So today was ‘P&J’ day – the day so many in the DUP said would never come!

It is not uncommon for a person who has responsibility thrust upon him or her to rise to the challenge. So far we have not seen much sign that Mr Ford has what it takes. That is part of the reason why our Assembly team voted against devolution of policing and justice. Let us hope, for the sake of Northern Ireland that Mr Ford has hidden depths; that he will rise to the challenge.

The Conservatives are putting effort plus into the campaign. I had my third shadow ministerial visit of the week – Jim Paice, shadow Minister of Agriculture. All the hard work of earlier weeks is paying dividends, it is becoming clearer by the day that voters are ‘getting’ the message; and there is no sight of any opposition, except on lampposts.

Jim Paice was bemused by the posters. It would be illegal in England to display posters on lampposts. I am not sure when or why the practice started to diverge – in England people display posters in their gardens or windows. I think this divergence predates the troubles; I don’t recall ever seeing houses with posters, even as a child in the sixties.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

First Saturday of the campaign

A good start to the day with a meeting at HQ of all our candidates; there is a wealth of talent and experience to draw on there, as well as enormous enthusiasm and appetite for the campaign. It is a very different line up from any previous Ulster Unionist group of candidates.

Then on to Lisburn to meet my campaign team in the centre of Lisburn, where we enjoyed the spring weather, and engaged with shoppers, including a lovely encounter with a lady who had been a babysitter for us when our older children were small, over twenty five years ago.

A quick lunch, and on to do some serious door knocking, ending just as the Grand National was starting. My poster team has been out for the last three evenings, but we will never match the quantities of posters put up by the DUP and TUV. In all other respects, we are seeing nothing of them on the ground. I recall from earlier elections how the Workers’ Party always had more and better posters than everyone else – but they didn’t win elections.

Our Conservative colleagues coming to support us find our postering of lampposts a novel experience: they don’t do it at all, but individuals display posters in their windows or gardens to show their support.

This evening was a night off.

The Ulster Youth Orchestra was having their second concert in the new theatre in Mossley Mill, and we went along to join the Mayor of Newtownabbey and a very good audience. They played even better than in Enniskillen, and the new theatre is a superb amenity.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Campaigning today in Lisburn.

The morning started with a quick trip to Campaign HQ for press interviews along with Dominic Grieve, Shadow SoS for Justice. Dominic is no stranger to Northern Ireland, having come here first as a boy as a guest of T E Uttley when holidaying in Co. Down, and he has visited regularly in recent times in his working capacity. Dominic came with me to Lisburn for a walkabout in Bow Street. The sun shone on us and many shoppers were out and about. We were received very positively, and it was good to meet people whose doors I had already been to.

We called in at Green’s Foodfare, a long established and highly successful food retailer in the city centre. I have no doubt that Conservative policies will grow the economy and keep our town centres vibrant more than anything Gordon Brown has to offer, and people are getting the message that a vote for me is a vote for David Cameron.

This evening is an evening away from politics. I am chair of the Ulster Youth Orchestra, and we have been running an Easter course for a chamber orchestra in Enniskillen, culminating in a concert this evening. It is great that we have managed to raise enough money to secure the future of the UYO for this year. The young people gave of their all and played magnificently. The soloist was Ciaran McCabe, now a professional musician, who first joined the UYO age 14 (or younger) in 1998.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Small Businesses and Domestic Violence

What an interesting day!
This morning was a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses, with a wide ranging discussion covering Gordon’s proposed NI (that is National Insurance, not Northern Ireland) increase, aka a tax on jobs, to the iniquities of our planning system which is in urgent need of reform, to the gap there is in government support for business between the start up businesses and the INI emphasis on particular sectors including export. A lot of ideas were exchanged across the table; this is how formulation of government policies can be responsive to the needs of people, in this case small businesses, some of which can grow. We should not forget that Randox, one of our major pharmaceutical employers grew out of a young student’s PHD thesis.

In the afternoon we brought Theresa May and Owen Paterson to Antrim to meet with Womens Aid, who do great work with victims of domestic abuse. I thought I was well aware of all the facts and figures in this area, after many years of work in the Equality and Human Rights Commissions; but all of us present were chilled by the detailed statistics on domestic abuse of older people. We need joined up government where statutory agencies and the voluntary sector can work together fully and funding can be sorted on a less piecemeal basis.

And then I and my team spent the evening knocking doors in Lagan Valley – some of them were handing out leaflets at railway stations from early morning – and the footmiles are mounting up. One encounter that touched me was a gentleman, not young, but not old, a little careworn, who was at his car in his driveway: he took my leaflet with politeness, but no enthusiasm. He pointed to his jacket lying in his boot and said ‘I’ve been wearing that jacket too long.’ We need a change of government to bring regeneration of the economy and get jobs back for people who want to work.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A good day on the doorsteps in Lisburn.

Today was sunny and warm, and a surprisingly high number of people were at home this afternoon when we called. At both the afternoon and evening canvass sessions, my team was well received. Most people are responding positively to the key message that we are offering change in politics in Northern Ireland, and that for the first time in many years a vote for me is also a vote for David Cameron and a vote to get rid of Gordon Brown.

We are bringing Northern Ireland right into mainstream UK politics, and this is the logical place for any Unionist to be.

Many electors are put off by the stories of sleaze and expenses; and no wonder. I am promising honest politics. I am promising hard work for the people of Lagan Valley, representing them full time at Westminster.

People are disgusted by the attempts of a Sinn Fein minister to wreck our education. I will work with my colleagues in the Assembly to ensure she does not get her way, and to sort out the problems with the transfer procedure.

We are still finding that people are not on the register, and lots need a postal vote. Please do make sure you are registered to vote and if you can't make it to the ballot box on 6 May make sure you get a postal or proxy vote. Phone the electoral office on 0800 4320 712 or visit There is still time, but it must be done quickly.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Election under way

And so the starting gun has gone! Gordon really couldn’t put it off any longer. My sense is that Lagan Valley is ready for change. My leaflets have been going through letterboxes, I and my team are knocking doors, and the overwhelming response is that it is time for change.

People are fed up with Gordon’s mishandling of the economy over 13 years as Chancellor and Prime Minister.

People are fed up with local politicians who don’t deliver for the people, fed up with waiting for John Lewis to get planning permission, fed up with no national stadium at the Maze, fed up with a dysfunctional executive, fed up with attempts to destroy our education service.

I want to speak to as many electors as I can before polling day. I want to hear what people say to me. I want to deliver real change for Lagan Valley.

Friday, 2 April 2010

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland

This is the text of a 'Platform' article published in the News Letter 2 April 2010

The Human Rights Commission’s remit in regard to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was fulfilled when it delivered its advice to the Secretary of State. The debate now belongs in the political arena.

We are at the end of the extended Government consultation period on their proposals. The reality is that the election is upon us and nothing will happen before the next parliament. Conservatives and Unionists have pledged to enact a UK wide Bill of Rights with a section for Northern Ireland. No-one should expect that section to be significantly bigger than Labour’s proposals, (though it might address different issues).

We have had over ten years of deliberation by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, we have had the Bill of Rights forum; a foreign philanthropic foundation has invested millions of pounds in lobbying and advertising by non statutory bodies. One might ask why such an organisation should consider the amending of human rights legislation in Northern Ireland in a particular way to be a cause worthy of disbursing so many millions of pounds.

It is appropriate to reflect on where we go from here.

The NIHRC proposals are dead in the water. There can be no doubt about that. But the time is ripe for change in human rights legislation across the UK.

The Human Rights Act is twelve years old. It has put judges in positions of political controversy. It has created a culture of rights without responsibilities. And it has failed to protect traditional freedoms.

Recently a doctor convicted in the UK of sexually assaulting two of his patients had his conviction in a British court overturned at Strasbourg because the Strasbourg court held that his right to a fair trial had been violated. One of his victims had committed suicide after giving a statement to the police. The British court allowed the statement to be given in evidence, in accord with British law. Strasbourg quashed his conviction, because he hadn’t been able to examine one of his accusers.

Many lawyers think that it is time to bring Human Rights home – to stop the confusion that can arise when judges are obliged to take into account two sometimes conflicting bodies of law.

If elected, Conservatives and Unionists will bring forward proposals for a UK Bill of Rights to strengthen and better protect our traditional liberties, with a section dealing with any issues specific to Northern Ireland. We don’t need any other special treatment.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

DUP follow our lead again

It would appear that where Conservatives and Unionists lead, the DUP follows.

Last week they finally capitulated to Conservatives and Unionists pressure on double jobbing. This week they have come out in support of our policy on a UK Bill of Rights. And of course we cannot forget the big volte face they made in following us in the Assembly.

While they might follow our lead, however, there is a crucial difference between us.

The DUP will never be in a position to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights because the DUP will never form or be part of the UK Government.

Conservatives and Unionists are the only party standing in Northern Ireland that can possibly form the government of the UK and deliver the change we need.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Ex Igne Resurgam

In all the excitement of election preparations I have shamefully neglected my blog – no more.

I am back.

What’s more, I believe we are back!

Lisburn’s motto is so appropriate for Ulster Unionism’s position today. After being down for a number of years, we are poised for a big recovery.

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks engaging with the electorate.

In the Old Warren estate where I was leafleting, I was well received; I chatted to lots of voters; none were hostile.

What a difference a few years makes. In the old days, when I was fighting David’s election battles in Upper Bann, the DUP were there, following us round, giving noisy accompaniment to our canvassing teams – but I haven’t seen sight nor sign of them in Lagan Valley.

And people want to talk: the other night it took me an hour to canvass an estate of 38 houses. It was great to have the time to engage and listen to people’s concerns. So far there are two big issues on the doorstep – the economy and education. We must not ever underestimate the depth of feeling there is against Katriona Ruane’s attempts to destroy our education system.

And on the economy, people are responding to the opportunity we are giving them to get rid of Gordon Brown.

We have agonised for months, if not years about North Down. Now we have a resolution, and we know where we stand. I can’t predict the outcome of the election in that constituency, but if Sylvia is returned, what will she do? Will she sit with labour? Or with the remnants of the DUP? Or will she cut a lonely figure on her own? And will the overwhelmingly conservative leaning electors of North Down be content with that?

Thursday, 25 February 2010

UUP and Conservative Candidate

I am delighted at being selected as candidate for Lagan Valley for the Ulster Unionist and Conservative parties.

The link between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party is the obvious and natural course of action for the UUP at this stage in the implementation of the constitutional settlement we achieved in 1998.

Anyone who suggests that it is an electoral pact made for cheap gain demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Unionism. At the heart of Unionism lies the preservation of the Union, but not in any subordinate capacity, or as a lesser part of the United Kingdom. Yes, there have been times over the past fifty years when we felt we were clinging on to the edge of the Union, but there has been a sea change in the attitude of our fellow Brits to Northern Ireland in the past few years, and we in the UUP have recognised and welcomed this. In his party conference speech, David Cameron who we expect to be the next Prime Minister said this ‘I am passionate about our Union and I will never do anything to put it at risk. And because of the new political force we have created with the Ulster Unionists, I’m proud that at the next election we will be the only party fielding candidates in every part of the United Kingdom.’ And as he said it he looked directly at David and me sitting in the audience.

Conservatives and Unionists are offering Ulster voters of whatever religious persuasion the opportunity to play a fuller role in the politics of the state. Our MPs will not sit in Westminster on the sidelines, but will be an integral part of the next party of government. No other party can offer as much.

We are doing what we can to bring normal politics to Northern Ireland; if we make progress in this at the election then I expect Labour to follow suit and field candidates here. Our actions have the potential to transform politics; to allow people to choose between the sets of social and economic policies offered by the parties that aspire to govern them, rather than simply registering their adherence to a particular national tradition or aspiration.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

How closely linked are devolution of Policing and Justice and Parades?

Now it’s time for a few brief observations on the Hillsborough Agreement:

Devolution of Policing and Justice will start with a resolution in the Assembly on 9 March, leading to devolution of powers by 12 April - section 1.

The parading timetable (section 2) requires the parading working group to report agreed outcomes by 23 February, and a sequenced legislative timetable. This is a very tight timescale.

What happens if the working group can’t agree by 23 Feb, and still hasn’t agreed by 9 March? Will the resolution to start the ball rolling on devolution of Policing and Justice still go ahead? Even if Feb 23/9 March goes ok, the ‘Agreement’ sets out two timetables running for most of the next year, so such problems could recur.

I am sure the DUP take the view that the two sections of the agreement are inextricably linked. This is a political document; not a legal one. The absence of explicit linkage between sections one and two might be important in a legal document, but not in a political one.

But I recall that there were two timetables in the Belfast Agreement –decommissioning within a two year time frame, and prisoner releases, also within a two year time frame. David tried to link them together, yet the government and virtually everyone else said there was to be no linkage, and prisoner releases went ahead without decommissioning within the agreed timetable.

If the DUP try to link the two timetables, what will happen? Will the same happen again? Will devolution of policing and justice proceed even if there is no agreement on parading?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Why Ulster Unionists should not give in to DUP manipulation

At St Andrews the DUP insisted on an amendment to the 1998 Belfast Agreement that provided that the leader of the largest party at Stormont was to be the First Minister.

This was no gaffe. It was a deliberate ploy to be used in the very situation we now find ourselves.

And we are in danger of falling for it.

The prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister would be tough for the Unionist electorate. The DUP have used this spectre in the past to blackmail the electorate into voting for them.
Now that their star is waning, and Unionism may be split three ways, they are using the same argument to try and do a deal with us so that they can hold on to something.

It is against this background that we should look at the private Hatfield House talks last weekend.

A week ago the Ulster Unionists were on a roll; the DUP in disarray over Robinsonsgate and a decisive by-election win with 64% of the vote in Lurgan, following on from a great result in the European poll earlier in the year.

Now there is angst amongst some in our party that if we fight an Assembly election and beat the DUP we will be a smaller party than Sinn Fein. The prospect of being deputy to Martin McGuinness is not palatable.

The DUP are in big trouble; they want to save their skins by destabilising our deal with the Conservatives. Shoring up their own supporters with talks of electoral pacts to save Robinson's skin is how they hope to survive intact.

But when have the DUP ever shown any concern for the common good; their tactics over the years have always been to predict doom and gloom if the electorate follows us, and then, when they achieve power to steal our clothes. They are at the same game today - remember how they wanted to do a deal with Cameron - but he wouldn't have them.

If, in an Assembly election, we were to end up the largest unionist party, with Sinn Fein as the largest party overall, what might happen? If we were unable to form an executive, another election would be triggered. The electorate’s minds might be concentrated by that; and a second Assembly election in short order would give unionist voters the chance to sort things out.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Lessons from the Craigavon By-Election

Ulster Unionists won this seat with a vote of 64% on a turnout of just under 24%. By by-election standards, and considering the poll was in mid-January after a protracted period of bad weather, the turnout was reasonable.

The TUV got 19%. The DUP did not stand.

Jo-Anne Dobson is a local resident, well known and well regarded in the area. Also well known in the area is that she and her family have for many years been very supportive ‘Trimble Unionists’.

I campaigned every day with her, and David campaigned every day he was available, including the Mourneview and grey estates in Lurgan, both traditionally ‘hard’ areas, where our previous experience had been that we were frequently given a hard time on the doorsteps. In the past, these estates, particularly the grey estate, were by and large areas of significant DUP support. Our reception on the doors in this area was very good - the DUP vote is collapsing.

The TUV vote in the European election was 13.5%. At 19% Allister will be satisfied with the outcome.

But our vote at 64% is higher than we have had for many years in any election. The warmth of the personal reception for David and me indicates that the electorate now can acknowledge that the UUP did a better job than the DUP are now doing – and are coming back to us.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Campaigning in Craigavon Council by-election

After spending the last few days canvassing our old stomping ground of Lurgan in support of Jo-Anne Dobson running for Council in the by-election due on 13 January, it is clear that the mood of the electorate has changed.

The last time I canvassed here was 2005, perhaps the low point for the UUP over the last number of years, and while most people were polite on the doorstep, they were not welcoming. It was interesting that we were not then met with the venom we had received in earlier, successful, campaigns from DUP supporters.

In the European election earlier this year, I canvassed widely around Lisburn. The single biggest issue on the doorstep was MPs’ expenses, but overall people were mostly welcoming and responded positively to the link up with the Conservatives.

This time I feel there is a greater change in our favour. A good many people expressed their delight at seeing David on their doorstep again. Expenses still get a mention, but it is not as raw an issue as earlier this year. Some people raised genuine council issues, e.g. swimming pools, but quite a number greeted us with ‘At least you are not the DUP’.

There remains a less than clear understanding of the implications of the UUP/Conservative link, but all comments I received about it are wholly favourable.

Our canvassing team has been very upbeat, turning up in substantial numbers, despite treacherous conditions underfoot.

Turn-out will be very low, as always in a by-election, but particularly if the snow remains until polling day, as weather forecasters are predicting. I am confident we will repeat the success of the Dromore by-election. This will be a great morale booster to lead us in to our next election campaign.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Human Rights Consortium is wrong

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium has firmly rejected the government’s proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, describing them as ‘pitifully limited’, unacceptable’ and ‘disrespectful’.

They want widespread new rights, including socio-economic rights, including ‘effective enforcement mechanisms’.

But the Consortium fails to look at the big picture.

Our society, irrespective of who is in government, wants its people to be able to live their lives to their full potential. Broadly there are three planks to how this is achieved:

Firstly the democratic process – the right for the electorate to tell a government to be gone, the right to peaceful regime change, if you like, and through the choice of a governing party, also to choose between the respective policies offered by the parties.

Secondly, the pursuit of broad social goals that are shared in society and which form the core of any government’s agenda and policy, whether it be Labour or Conservative. Striving to achieve freedom from hunger, freedom to have shelter, freedom to seek employment, health provision, etc. is the aim of policy formulated by the freely elected government.

And thirdly, the legally enforceable universal rights and freedoms guaranteed internationally by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and in Europe by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Consortium and others are trying to bring the justiciability that rightly attaches to these universal human rights in to the proposed ‘socio-economic rights’ and thus fetter government’s ability to implement policy and to allocate resources.

If democracy means anything, it means that government is accountable directly to the electorate. The ‘effective enforcement mechanisms’ that the Consortium proposes would mean that government was accountable in court to the judiciary, at the call of the person bringing the case, who, under the current proposals could be an unaccountable body such as the Consortium.

New Blog

2010 promises to be a busy year. 

I have (rashly?) decided to join the select band of bloggers, with what will be occasional thoughts and musings on matters political, particularly with regard to Northern Ireland, for whoever wants to read them.