Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
As former Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling, came out in support of the Scottish parliament gaining further powers, the Scotland Office published a timetable for a referendum to take place next September, a year before the 2014 date suggested by Alex Salmond.
Outlining the government’s thinking, junior Scotland Office minister, David Mundell, argued:
“There is no reason why the Scottish people should have to wait nearly three years to have their say in an independence referendum.
“We have produced a timetable that shows how you can give people their say on independence next September.
“No corners are cut and all processes are properly followed. But instead of working with us to put the Scottish public firmly in the referendum driving seat, the Scottish government have resorted to insults and mistakes. This is a very poor show and people will be mystified.
“The Scottish government claim the 2013 proposal is a ‘silly distraction’ and ‘full of holes’ but they don’t say why and they don’t say what. People want action not insults.”
Political columnist Iain MacWhirter, meanwhile, had a warning for the pro-union camp, writing in the Herald this week:
The problem faced by the Unionist campaign thus far is that it lacks a proper leader, is intellectually confused, politically divided, widely mistrusted and fatally associated with a party – the Conservatives – which as we all know has fewer MPs in Scotland than giant pandas.
Critics like the former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth say that Mr Cameron is only “playing into the SNP’s hands” by offering more powers. They won’t let up.
A worse problem for both Mr Cameron and Mr Darling is moral inconsistency. It is difficult to argue that the option they claim to favour, more powers, is the one that should not be put to the people in the referendum.
Both are saying: “Trust us, vote no, and you’ll get a Scottish parliament with the powers you want.” Clearly, they are under the delusion that Scots voters were born yesterday.
To be credible, the no campaign needs to say, first of all, where they stand on the Scotland bill, which does not give Holyrood the power to raise the oney it spends, or anything like it. Really, someone needs to put the bill out of its misery because it has become an embarrassing irrelevance.
To bridge the trust gap, Scots need to be assured, either that there will be a new Scotland bill, that there will be a second referendum on new powers, or that it will be left to the Scottish Parliament to decide what constitutional arrangement is suitable for Scotland within the UK. Maybe this isn’t enough.
The danger now for the Unionists is that Mr Salmond – following the lead set by Mr Darling and Mr Cameron – may offer a version of independence that is so close to devolution max that Scots vote for it out of spite at not seeing their favoured option on the ballot paper.
I’m beginning to think that this is a real possibility. The “social union” that Mr Salmond proposes for England and Scotland appeals to many Scots, who want economic autonomy but don’t want to separate from their kith and kin.
Finance secretary John Swinney also expressed concerns, after figures revealed Scotland’s SMEs received less than five per cent of lending under project Merlin, despite accounting for almost 6.5 per cent of all UK SMEs.
“The Project Merlin figures released last week showed that the big five banks failed to meet their SME lending targets. There is a more fundamental question about whether Project Merlin has achieved anything in addressing the current market failure in lending to SMEs.
“I believe we have a shortfall in lending to viable SMEs in Scotland, which is constraining economic activity and threatening this important component of our economy.
“If only 4.8 per cent of gross lending went to Scottish SMEs, it is clear that Project Merlin has failed to address poor lending conditions for Scottish companies and this needs to be addressed by the UK government.”
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced it is to consider whether two brothers breached the terms of their deal in the UVF supergrass trial as twelve members, accused of the murder of UDA leader Tommy English were freed despite evidence from supergrasses Robert and Ian Stewart.
Outlining his concerns at the way things had developed, Mr Justice Gillen said of the brothers:
“In summary, these are witnesses of very bad character who have lied to the police and to the court, on some occasions wrongly implicated a number of men who were clearly not present at the crimes suggested, on other occasions at worst falsely embellished or at best wildly confused the roles and words of those whom they alleged were present, have clear difficulties distinguishing one crime scene from another and have given evidence which is flatly contradicted by unchallenged independent evidence throughout the process.”
“It is regrettable that the use of uncorroborated, unsupportive supergrasses is re-emerging in this jurisdiction when one considers that throughout such show trials in the past the evidence provided by the supergrass has been demonstrated to be unreliable, dishonest, contaminated, collusive and not worthy of belief.
“There remain serious concerns about the supergrass process.”
The SDLP, meanwhile, launched a stinging attack on the Alliance for their refusal to back a motion at Stormont on Monday that called on the government to make opposition to Westminster’s welfare reform plans a high priority.
Speaking following the debate, SDLP MLA Mark Durkan declared:
“The Alliance Party’s pattern of voting after today’s debate is highly illogical and in my opinion inexplicable – although I look forward to hearing them attempt to explain it.
“We had a real chance today of making a statement that the Assembly will not just blindly accept draconian welfare cuts being handed over from Westminster and of resolving to reduce their impact on our most vulnerable people and working families.
“Having voted with us previously, Alliance changed their vote when it became evident that our motion could be passed. Perhaps they did not want to upset the DUP.
“We remain committed to working with all parties to shelter vulnerable people from the storm of welfare cuts.”
As Conservative MPs this week used the Commons debate on the NHS Risk Register to once again attack Labour’s handling of the NHS in Wales, Welsh health minister Lesley Griffiths hit back with an exclusive article for Left Foot Forward, explaining:
“Whilst the Tories in London aim to reduce the role of the state, I believe in a NHS with a strong public service ethos that places public interest above private profit. I believe in accessible, high quality, citizen-centred services for all, not choice for the few.
“Unlike the current debacle over health reform being played out in England, we will have no truck with such ideologically driven dogma.
“Unlike in England, all professional organisations and trades unions in Wales support our approach to the NHS.
“Unlike in England, Welsh Labour has a mandate from the people to its vision on the future direction of the NHS.
“As we have made clear – as long as Welsh Labour forms the government in Cardiff, the forces of marketisation will stop at the border.”
As ballot papers were posted in the contest for the leadership of Plaid Cymru, its outgoing leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, told his party it should seize any opportunity that might arise to get back into government before the next Assembly elections.
Speaking to BBC Wales’s “Sunday Politics” programme in an interview to go out this week, he argued:
“If there was an opportunity obviously for Plaid to go back into government, I think the party should accept that.
“I am not suggesting that (coalition) should happen immediately because I think there were things in the 2011 election that the party needs to get right first before the party thinks about going into coalition.
“But I think the party now has to accept that it’s now a party that is looking to be in government.
“In other words that should be its mission, because I believe that significant constitutional change can only happen if Plaid is part of the government of Wales.”
Elsewhere, as the Labour faithful gathered for the party’s annual conference in Wales, the shadow Welsh secretary warned the party to avoid becoming too managerial in style.
Reviewing the conference on her blog, BBC Wales’s political editor, Betsan Powys, wrote:
Labour must be transformed into a movement right across Wales, not a periodic party machine that kicks into action when there’s an election to be won.
It was Peter Hain doing the talking at the party’s spring conference over the weekend. Plaid, he said, are “drifting”. They have nowhere to go other than independence and people don’t want that.
The Liberal Democrats, the “Tories’ little helpers” will get what they deserve come May’s local elections. So Labour must re-establish itself as the sole party capable of leading the progressive left, to take on the Tories.
The audience at the Progress fringe meeting liked that – a lot.
In private many of those who’ve been knocking doors ahead of May 3rd are playing down the chances of huge Labour gains. The core Tory vote in Wales seems solid, why wouldn’t it be? Plaid will probably do ok-ish. The Lib Dems probably won’t but that doesn’t amount to a feeling on those doorsteps of Labour making huge strides.
They’ll do well, much better than last time, goes the argument, but just as Labour ‘should have’ won a majority last May and didn’t, don’t expect a series of slam dunk victories this May.
Ask why that should be and the gist of the answer is this – delivery is the right message. On the doorsteps people need to see more of it.
The bit they liked most at the fringe meeting – or at least, the bit where they couldn’t help, many of them, but blurt out what sounded like a slightly disloyal ‘mmmmm’ of agreement was when Mr Hain warned that Carwyn Jones’ government is facing a very real danger, “one we’ve fallen into before in Westminster”.
That danger is of “becoming more and more managerial”. The longer we’re in power, the more we’ve got to guard against it, said Mr Hain. We’ve got to be clear what we’re about, musn’t lose touch with our supporters. Delivery is the right message.
His audience agreed.
Also this week:
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• Wales will fight the Tory dismantling of the NHS – Lesley Griffiths AM
• Rangers FC: How a market leader went bust – Stephen Henderson