It says something about how interested the Westminster Village is in Northern Ireland that more hasn’t been made of Owen Patterson’s predicament.
Further to Eamonn’s scoop here a few weeks ago, if Nicholas Watt, writing in The Guardian, is correct that “the Tories did hold secret talks to establish a pan-unionist force, contrary to denials by the party” (i.e. they did hold the talks, they said that they didn’t, and it turns out that they lied), it should surely be something of a warning for the British electorate about how far The Conservatives are happy to return to their form of the 1990s in placing the interests of their party above the need to promote the public interest in their policies towards Northern Ireland.John Major’s government was prepared to allow itself to be held to ransom by Unionists then, paying a messy price by stalling progress in Northern Ireland. The worry this time, I suppose, is that a weakened and fragmented Unionism may deprive Nationalists of fewer Westminster seats than they could have done before Irisgate. Worrying, especially with the polls showing a strong possibility of a hung parliament.
But it is telling that anyone in Cameron’s party would have allowed this consideration to prod them into exploratory talks about such an objectively sectarian outcome.
In this context, were the Tories currently in power, there is no way that Cameron would have been able to play the role that Gordon Brown and Shaun Woodward have played. It may seem a minor point with so much else going on in Northern Ireland, but elsewhere, such irresponsibility is telling. Or it should be, if everyone weren’t so bored with Groundhog Day.