In the Newsletter today, Liam Clarke makes an analogy between the language of two men apparently in peril of their political lives: Peter Hain and Ian Paisley Junior. Each, it would appear, have had a tendency to cut administrative corners. In Northern Ireland, that counted for little or nothing in Hain’s case, although now the chickens are coming home to roost. Both men are thick skinned enough to tough it out. But the sound in the background is the slow and stealthy withdrawal of party political cover. However more twists there are in this road for either man, each is increasingly on their own. By Liam Clarke
Peter Hain and Ian Paisley Junior were never soul mates, but they have sounded remarkably similar over the past few days.
After embarrassing disclosures of documents both politicians have been falling over themselves to apologise for the embarrassment to their parties. Both admit they haven’t handled things well but any actual wrong doing.
The curious thing is that when Hain was judicially reviewed and criticised for pulling political strings in Northern Ireland it never became a political issue in Britain. Seen from the Westminster village, a bit of jiggery pokery over issues like the Victims Commissioner doesn’t really count in this backwater of a place where the natives expect baksheesh and you give them what they want to get results. Even in Wales, where he was also Secretary of State, he got away with quite a lot.
In London different standards apply. The failure to declare campaign donations has had Gordon Brown distancing himself from Hain at a rate of knots.
“It was a mistake that was made. It was an incompetence that he has readily admitted to,” intoned the Prime Minister, hoping that the Electoral Commission would accept “that there was no corruption involved” and “be able to accept his apology.”
It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But then neither was the DUP statement on Paisley’s lobbying Hain and other ministers on behalf of constituents, including the businessman Seymour Sweeney, when we all thought he was focused on larger constitutional and macroeconomic issues.
Northern Ireland didn’t get the £1 billion aid package the DUP and Sinn Fein had set their sights at St Andrews. Could the political favour bank that might have achieved it have been frittered away on pet projects like the future of the A26 road north of Ballymena, a grant for the North West 200, the fate of a spa resort and the Heritage Centre at the Giant’s Causeway?
Short of reading Tony Blair’s mind we will never know, but what is undeniable is that these constituency issues would normally have been the subject of bids under the block grant allocation, not privileged issues which are slipped up the queue.
It may never have been Paisley’s intention to use up political leverage to boost his standing in his own constituency. However, knowing the pragmatic way in which Hain and Blair handle negotiations with Northern Ireland parties, British ministers may well have regarded satisfying Paisly on these issues as the equivalent of slipping in a few private favours to the ruling family of some third world despotism in order to grease the wheels for a contract which is important to British interests.
Certainly the DUP weren’t praising Paisley’s ingenuity in introducing Seymour Sweeney’s plans for the Giant’s Causeway at the right psychological moment to get a result. “This issue was not part of the DUP’s negotiations … If it was raised on the margins it was done without the party’s knowledge or approval” it said in a statement.
Like Hain Paisley is being left on his own and doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
“Perhaps it wasn’t handled well” Paisley conceded to Stephen Nolan yesterday morning but added “I honestly think the vast majority, and probably your listeners, are switched off from this. This is not a hot topic as some people would like us to believe.”
Unfortuntely for Ian Junior his relationship with businessmen and his outspoken views on homosexuality are the first things that spring to mind when his name is mentioned. These should be private matters but the problem is that he keeps letting them slip into the public arena where they divert attention from his party’s successes.
He certainly has the ability to go far but if he is to fulfill his potential he will have to learn the art of diplomacy and tact.
This should have been the week to trumpet Peter Robinson’s coup at Stormont when he found enough funds to meet Margaret Ritchie’s housing budget. The cracks in the UUP /SDLP alliance against the DUP are already apparent. You can tell that marriage of convenience is on the rocks when Iris Robinson devotes large chunks of her News Letter column to quoting SDLP attacks on Michael McGimpsey’s handling of health spending.
I’d planned to write about that, but now there is no room.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty