Did Owen Paterson realise what a can of worms he was opening when he got that historic opponent of the Republics involvement in the north, the wily Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury to facilitate talks with the unionist parties – assuming Salisbury (or Cranborne as we knew him better) didn’t get there first? The very name throbs with significance, as its Victorian bearer the Prime Minister was the great opponent of Home Rule. The only half-tangible result so far has been a threat to the bipartisanship between the two main parties three months before the general election, a consummation devoutly not to be wished. The Conservatives bungled Hatfield House initiative, whatever it was, was bound to prompt nationalist charges of breaking the bipartisan approach. Labours reply given to Nick Watt the Guardian lobby correspondent who assiduously covers Sinn Feins occasional sallies to Westminster, simply deepens the problem.
One senior government source said: “We are simply astonished at what the Tories are doing. The Northern Ireland peace process has been strengthened by the bipartisan approach between all the major parties at Westminster. Holding talks at a country estate and excluding the nationalists is absolutely not within that spirit
The Hatfield mystery has been picked up by the BBCs political editor Nick Robinson, on the possible significance of an unionist electoral pact which could also benefit the Conservatives in a hung Parliament, however much the Tories deny the latter was a Hatfield theme. There is a glimmer here of Northern Ireland emerging an election issue between the two main UK parties, especially if the present Executive collapses. It will nobody any good in NI.
The problem would be compounded if elections for Stormont as well as Westminster were held on the same day, as is being rumoured as a possibility.
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