With David Cameron visiting Wales today - and following his visit to Scotland on Friday - we look ahead to what awaits the prime minister in Northern Ireland.
With David Cameron visiting Wales today – and following his visit to Scotland on Friday – Left Foot Forward looks ahead to what awaits the prime minister in Northern Ireland, which he is widely expected to visit this week as part of his promise to visit all three devolved bodies within a week of taking power.
Mr Cameron’s reception, however, may be frostier than in Cardiff or Edinburgh, with tensions over his party’s tie-up with the Ulster Unionists, and a broad based coalition emerging to protect the country from the cuts that are to come.
The Political Headache
Following the failure of the Ulster Unionist/Conservative alliance to win any seats at the election it was probably inevitable that the UUP’s Leader, Sir Reg Empey, would announce his intention to step down. Speaking after of a meeting of his party’s executive on Saturday, Sir Reg said:
“It is with considerable thought that I have made the decision to step down as Party Leader from this Autumn. This is a decision I have not come to lightly but with close consultation with my family, my party colleagues and close friends.”
More significantly, however, the UUP has undertaken to hold a complete review of its operations, with a particular focus on its links with the Conservatives. A UUP press statement said:
“The Executive meeting also discussed the issues of the Conservative project and unionist unity with agreement reached that discussion would ensue about where external relationships stand. There will be no pre-determined outcome to this process.“
Despite the pledge that there would be no pre-determined outcomes to the review, it is becoming increasingly clear that the UUP see two choices facing their party.
There are those, represented by members such as Basil McCrea, the MLA for Lagan Valley, touted as a likely challenger for the leadership, who would prefer to see their links with the Conservatives completely severed. At the beginning of the week, following his party’s first Assembly meeting after the election, he said:
“Whether we have any relationship with the Conservatives is a matter for the party to consider but it was a difficulty having another party involved in the selection of candidates. Personally, I think we are extremely unlikely to make the same mistake again.”
Others in the party – as yet unnamed – are thought to prefer some sort of unionist unity arrangement with the DUP, fearful that Sinn Fein’s performance in the General Election could put Martin McGuinness on course to become first minister in next year’s elections to Stormont. Significantly, neither option includes David Cameron or the Conservatives as part of the UUP’s future plans.
Professor Rick Wilford of Queen’s University, Belfast, has previously said that the Conservatives’ alliance with the UUP was part of David Cameron’s attempts at “big tent” politics. After the election, it is clear that Cameron’s big tent in Northern Ireland has become a big flop. If even his so-called allies in are backing away from him, how can David Cameron or his new Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, command either confidence or respect from other parties?
David Cameron will face significant resistance from parties across the political spectrum not to embark on savage cuts to Northern Ireland’s block grant. The concerns come after David Cameron’s pre-election interview with Jeremy Paxman revealed that the Conservatives saw Northern Ireland as being first on their list for cuts.
Following her shock defeat of Peter Robinson in Belfast East, Naomi Long of the Lib Dems’ sister party, the Alliance Party, used last week’s first minister’s questions at Stormont to press (page 190) the executive to unite political parties across Northern Ireland to stand up against any proposals to cut the grant from Westminster.
Responding, Sinn Fein deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, was clear (page 190):
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“I reiterate what Members from different political parties that are represented in the Assembly have said on a number of occasions: we should work together to put up a broad front against the prospect that damaging cuts will be inflicted on our public sector and, furthermore, our economy.
“We will be anxious to work with everyone in the Assembly and with everyone who has been elected as a Member of Parliament to ensure that we put up a united front against what could be very damaging economic circumstances.”