Tensions between the government and the DUP were exposed as never before since the St Andrew’s Agreement, in a sharp exchange in the Commons between Peter Robinson and the normally deferential Shaun Woodward. At NI Questions, urgings that stalling over the devolution of justice and policing should end were even dragged into a question about youth crime and alcohol abuse.
After exchanges deploring the murder in Derry last night of Emmett Shields, Woodward declared that dissident republican activity was ” at its highest for five years.” Making a link the DUP abominate between delays in devolution and ongoing violence, Woodward declared that devolution of J&P should happen ” sooner rather than later” to confound those individuals “who cling to the obsessive hope they can shake confidence in Northern Ireland.”
The DUP’s real rejoinder came later at PMQs, when Iris Robinson demanded that the government should not “legalise” the IRA, an idea she had unsurprisingly drawn from the latest report from Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, which seemed to suggest that the IRA should now be de-proscribed ( see Slugger post below). Gordon Brown seemed thrown by the question, but managed to reply that he was not going to ” legalise the IRA. Its Army Council should be brought to an end as as soon as possible.”
But back to her husband. Woodward had been stalling on the vexed subject of handing over nine former army sites free to the Executive, which a 2003 declaration had said might been handed over, after five promised in 2002 had indeed been transferred. Robinson was having none of this might. On what looked like the spur of the moment, he exploded:
“ The 2003 agreement said there should be additional sites handed over. When’s the government going to do it?”
At this, Woodward’s worm turned for once. Five sites had been gifted in 2002, he said, but insisted again on the might for the 2003 batch. Warming to his theme, he even hit back:
“I do have to say that there is disappointment that there continues to be disagreement about the Maze site which was gifted in 2002 and which regrettably continues to be the subject of controversy. Which at the end of the day if the National Stadium project were to be lost to the Maze, would mean that Northern Ireland would almost certainly lose its hope to be one of the centres focusing on 2012 Olympics.”
That’s telling them Shaun!
Judging from these and other exchanges, it seems that the door is not closed on handing over more sites. There were even hints that the Lisanelly camp site at Omagh might be handed over for the education village proposal, championed among others, by the local Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty and a most unlikely ally, the very grand Tory chair of the NI committee, Sir Patrick Cormack.
And just to show his straight talk was quickly exhausted, Woodward reverted to cringe when challenged by a Conservative that the government had done a deal with the DUP in exchange for their support in the close vote on 42 days’ detention without charge.
“There was no deal, ” the Secretary of State insisted. The very idea was “an insult to one of the most principled parties in the House on counter terrorism”
But I’ve a feeling that the First Minister will want more than warm words before relations are fully restored with the government. And vice versa, for that matter.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London