Friday, 25 July 2008


Martin McGuinness has confirmed what everyone knew – the Executive is deadlocked. He admitted there is a ‘stalemate’. The Executive failed to meet again this week. This came as a shock to some but as the First Minister Peter Robinson was heading off to America on Tuesday, the reality is that there was never going to be a meeting this week. One hopes that the First Minister has an enjoyable holiday and will come back fully recovered and no longer need a wheelchair to get around at Westminster. Mrs Robinson is probably looking forward to a break too.

Nearly 40 pieces of legislation or papers that require rubber stamping by the Executive have been delayed by the current differences between the two main parties. About half a dozen were approved by emergency procedures but these were largely those relating to non contentious technical issues.

A range of important issues remain unresolved, however, despite noises from Sinn Féin, it is probably inaccurate to say that we have reached crisis point. There are probably a few months before that might occur. Sinn Féin need something to keep their ‘troops’ happy but it still remains to be seen what incentive there is for the DUP to move. If Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State, threatens to introduce an Irish Language Act through Westminster and if Sinn Féin were to signal that they would accept an Alliance Policing and Justice Minister, there could yet be a resolution of the impasse.

Should things drift into winter, the DUP will worry about devolving policing and justice in what would essentially be the run up to the European elections.

Labour shaken by loss of Glasgow East to Scottish Nationalists

Long after Crewe and Nantwich is forgotten Glasgow East will be remembered. It could well be the election result that brings down Gordon Brown. Crewe and Nantwich was a safe Labour seat. Glasgow East was one of its strongest redoubts. This will spread panic throughout Labour MPs as they will virtually all fear losing their seats. The fact that this is a by election, and unlikely to repeated in a General Election, is a rational view that somehow gets lost when frightened MPs focus on the survival of their majority. Gordon Brown is lucky that Westminster is in Recess. This will help slow the spread of panic but is unlikely to stop the plotting. Changing their leader again is only likely to reduce their losses not prevent them losing the general election. Individual MPs may believe a new leader will give them enough ‘bounce’ in the opinion poll ratings to enable them to avoid defeat. Precisely who would volunteer to be leader in order to ‘reduce the losses’ at the next general election is unclear.

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists shock the commentariat

The media was taken aback when the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists revealed that they had been in secret talks about joining forces to ‘create a new electoral force’ in Northern Ireland with a view to bringing the region into ‘normal’ UK politics.

The other political parties in Northern Ireland were equally taken aback by the announcement. The DUP did not know whether to attack their rivals or not – possibly for fear of damaging their relations with the Conservatives even further. The DUP’s decision to support the government on the vote on 42 day detention vote, Iris Robinson’s remarks about homosexuality and the need for the government to uphold ‘God’s Laws’ have hugely damaged the party’s relations with the Conservatives.

Mr Cameron in particular shocked the ‘experts’ who appear to believe that he would be very pragmatic and ‘keep in’ with the DUP in case there is a hung Parliament. Others felt that Mr Cameron might be tempted simply to seek an alliance with the UUP under which any future Ulster Unionist MP would take the Conservative whip. However, in the event, Mr Cameron staked a flag in the ground in favour of a complete merger.

Iris Robinson remarks fuel controversy

Fuel was added to the fire of controversy caused by last week’s remarks by Iris Robinson, the MP and MLA for Strangford about homosexuals when the Belfast Telegraph unearthed a Hansard remark by Mrs Robinson in which she said homosexual was worse than child abuse. The wife of the First Minister then claimed that she had been misreported – apparently unaware that Hansard retains audio copies of all Westminster proceedings. Mrs Robinson then issued a statement which appeared to suggest that everyone would know that she did not mean what she said.

Mrs Robinson is currently on holiday with her husband.

Foster to stand for DUP in council by-election

Arlene Foster, the DUP MLA and Enterprise Minister, has been chosen as the DUP's candidate to contest the Fermanagh council by-election. Mrs Foster resigned from the same council a few months ago when she was the Environment Minister - a job whose remit includes local government. Now that she has no conflict of interest it appears she cannot bear to stay off the council. The UUP – having caused the by election by preventing a co-option – are now in a difficult position. If they stand Mrs Foster will certainly outpoll their candidate and they might spilt the unionist vote allowing Sinn Féin to take the seat.

Mrs Foster will be delighted to have the opportunity to raise her profile in one of the main towns in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster constituency. She is also expected to be the DUP’s candidate at the General Election when she will attempt to wrest the seat from her Ministerial colleague, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew.

Abortion row brewing

Virtually all of Northern Ireland’s politicians are united in their desire to prevent the region coming into line with GB on the issue of abortion. It is a subject that excites great passion and we could see a huge row at Westminster come the autumn. A group of backbench MPs – Labour and Conservative - have tabled an amendment to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill that would change the law to bring NI in line with GB.

This Bill could have completed its Commons stages before the Recess and it is believed that Gordon Brown would have preferred that it had. However, apparently Harriet Harman ensured it didn’t and thus facilitated this amendment. Ironically, it could be used to Brown’s advantage. He could threaten to do nothing to prevent the passage of the amendment and say to the DUP and SF that if they want to prevent it becoming law all they need to do is to agree to devolved criminal justice matters by the autumn.

Obama cites Belfast as an example to the world

Speaking in Berlin, Senator Barack Obama, the democratic candidate in the US presidential election said that the walls in Belfast have come down. I feel another presidential visit coming on – if only to educate the Senator on the reality.