What Reg Empey called the beginning of a beautiful friendship was given a modest lift at the Conservative conference this morning in the low level opening Great Britain session that launched off a day due to be dominated by David Camerons Leaders Speech. You know its low level because the little sit-down talks arent posted on the conference website and all the speakers except Reg didnt get up from their deep white armchairs to speak. Indeed poor Reg didnt even qualify for an armchair presumably because he is still, sort of a not quite full member. Anyway, the wider attention the session will receive will be round about zero. The overwhelmingly English representatives dont really get devolution as a whole (which is what this was really about) but they probably know the Union is vaguely in question so every reference to it triggered a sprinkling of applause. It was all very low-key I expect the Leader is reserving the main cheer-lines on The Union for himself and Ill spare you the Scottish and Welsh bits. But before we all rush to Reg, we had Owen Patterson, the cocky frontbencher who has the ticklish task of re-forging an old relationship. NI wasnt quite like quite Finchley yet, but Owen seemed to think it was getting there.The constitution was settled ten years ago. Now we can move on (Perhaps Owen you may yet right, but this is hardly a complete statement). He made two decidedly peripheral promises ( the first after losing his place in the text):
We will bring to an end the practice of shared mandates ( Have you talked this over with FM and DFM?)
And we will bring to an end inquiries which have loose mandates like Saville (was inquiring into what happened, how and why in one 20 minute period really a loose mandate”?).
For the avoidance of doubt, Patterson confirmed that the Conservative party ( sic) would be the only party to put up candidates in every part of the UK, adding: For too long, Northern Ireland has been semi-detached from the Union.. its MPs had no chnahce to be ministers
we will change all that.
All the devolution spokespersons were careful to say theyd keep their noses out devolved matters. So only cool endorsement was on offer for power sharing and no sense of urgency about transferring J&P. Indeed there was no urgency about anything much: turning NI into an enterprise zone is a 25 year project, it seems. Ian Parsley ,Alliance apostate, was warmly applauded as he led off a series of regional accents asking the same tame question with different regional name checks what would a Conservative government do about unemployment? And then it was Regs turn, speaking from the perspex podium.
For a speech labelled by the Newsletter as historic it failed to match its billing, though it began with a note of fashionable honesty: David Cameron probably doesnt need a single UU vote to bring him into Downing St .so support for the UUP is a long term calculation. Reg missed the chance to make the audience warm to him by pay fulsome tribute to the Leader for showing interest in our great wee country at all. But they certainly liked it when he said: Northern Ireland does not want special treatment. For the home audience he struck a shared future theme. A shared future is about much more than shoring up existing divisions, but one committed to backing policies which the everyday needs of all the people . And I will not standing idly by when others condemn Northern Ireland to the old sectarian mantras. (But what will you do, can you do, Reg?).
With the Conservative front benchers staying fastidiously out of the local arguments it’s hard to see what is in it for local voters. Despite Patterson’s pledge to give any UU MPs “exactly the same rights” as all other Cons MPs, I echo fair deal’s well-made point in an earlier post of mine when I reported William Hague’s pledge to give English MPs a veto over English only matters:
“Such a move, as well as being a very dodgy answer to the West Lothian question (Id be interested to see the detail of the proposals as it could create some interesting precedents), undermines the UUP/Con argument on NI MPs not turning up enough at parliament because they are going to change the rules that there will be little to no point them being there .”
The Hague plan would create two classes of MP for the first time- a constitutional and political heresy up to now. And will NI remain unaffected by the Tory commitment to reduce the total number of MPs by 10%? I could go on – much else has been raised below by Belfast Gonzo, but Ill leave it by concluding that the session showed that the Union strategy is very much work in progress.
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