BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for May 2010

£1 billion

Mark Devenport | 12:36 UK time, Sunday, 30 May 2010

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That's how much the Environment Minister Edwin Poots thinks the Executive will face in cuts, according to a letter he has sent to the 26 local councils explaining why the Executive wants them to pay the full costs of the Review of Public Administration.

Since the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition took charge, the focus has been on how many cuts the Executive will face to its block grant - the cash it has to fund services like health and education. However on Inside Politics today we are probing another area where the policies adopted in London could have a direct impact on people here - through the welfare benefits paid to hundreds of thousands of claimants.

The welfare system in Northern Ireland is governed according to the so called parity principle, whereby people here get the same benefits as their counterparts in England. That means that if the new Welfare Secretary Ian Duncan Smith starts changing the rules applied to those who get, say, Incapacity Benefit, they would also apply close to home. Claims here for Incapacity Benefit or Income Support are well above the UK average. In the last financial year more than £4 billion in benefits was paid out to 580,000 claimants.

If Mr Duncan Smith pushes through radical changes, how comfortable would that be for his local counterpart, the new Social Development Minister Alex Attwood? Could other parties suggest we should depart from the parity principle? If they did what would be the financial consequences for the block grant? And what might be the practical repercussions given that our welfare benefits are paid using the London Department of Work and Pensions computer systems?

Those are the kind of topics I am hoping to discuss with Alex Atwood and the local Conservative Ian Parsley, who works for Mr Duncan Smith's Centre for Social justice think tank. Our regular commentator Fionuala O'Connor and the newspaper columnist Alex Kane join me to consider general political developments.

37 days

Mark Devenport | 15:28 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

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That's how much notice you will have to give of a public gathering under the draft Public Assemblies Parades and Protests Bill. The intention of the DUP Sinn Fein working party might have been to establish equality between Orangemen and residents groups by treating protests in the same manner as parades. However this will now mean that rallies involving pensioners, trade unionists and other concerned citizens will be brought into the ambit of the legislation.

Arguing that the bill would have criminalised the Whitehouse school parents who protested recently at Stormont or the Quinn insurance workers who held ralles in Fermanagh, the SDLP's Conall McDevitt has labelled the proposals "Stalinist". Mr McDevitt has tabled a motion at Stormont asserting that the bill, as it stands, is incompatible with international human rights standards.

Robbing Peter?

Mark Devenport | 14:39 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

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Nothing to do with our First Minister, but just the expression which came into my mind as I mulled over last night's Executive decision to get our local councils to pay for the estimated £118 million cost of the proposed transition from 26 bodies to just 11. The Environment Minister says this move would be "rates neutral" as the councils could borrow from central government and then pay back as and when they make savings. Presumably the idea is this would provide a direct incentive to collaborate over the provision of services in order to make those efficiencies.

But if the architects of the Review of Public Administration are so convinced the streamlining will ultimately save money should it matter which arm of government finances it up front? If they aren't convinced, isn't the notion of borrowing large sums up front and paying back in the long term in direct contravention of the current emphasis from Whitehall on bringing down our collective debt? Put like this the latest manouevre could look like an accountancy trick, robbing the council Peter to pay the central government Paul. After PFIs and all those other schemes which have contributed to our bloated public borrowing how much faith do the ratepayers have in government accountancy tricks?

Whilst some argue that stalling the process now is damaging the maorale of council staff, the Green MLA Brian Wilson reckons oushing ahead would be a case of "throwing good money after bad". Mr Wilson says "there is no sound evidence to believe" that the savings projected from the streamlining process are real.

Coming back to last night's fortnight deal by the Executive, the atmosphere at a NILGA (Local Government Association) meeting today was, according to one source, "poisonous". The Environment Minister is to see if the councils will foot the transition bill before the next Executive meeting takes place on Thursday week. But I'm told that NILGA won't have the authority to deliver an answer - instead each of the 26 councils will have to consider the matter. The logistics of getting an agreed answer from local government within the next fortnight are challenging to say the least. And what happens if 13 councils agree to foot the bill, but 13 say no?

Bright Spark?

Mark Devenport | 12:42 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

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Members of the Stormont Finance Committee received a briefing yesterday from the Northern Ireland Electrical Standards Lobbying Group about rogue electricians. At the end of the session, the UUP's David McNarry said he had a final question for them: "How many Shinners does it take to change a light bulb?", and laughed, giving Sinn Fein's Fra McCann, sitting on his right, a playful nudge with his elbow. However, the Sinn Fein committee chair Jennifer McCann was less than amused, and reprimanded him with "there's no need for that David". The UUP MLA failed to deliver his punchline. Any suggestions?

More UCUNF squabbles

Mark Devenport | 12:15 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

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After Basil McCrea went on our airwaves yesterday to criticise the delay in Sir Reg's departure and to express doubts about an unelected member such as Mike Nesbitt being groomed for the leadership, today the UUP hierarchy has hit back in the shape of the party chairman, David Campbell.

Mr Campbell says there was widespread dissatisfaction at the last UUP Executive "at the behaviour of Basil McCrea in attempting to conduct Party business through the media." he adds for good measure that "the Party will no longer tolerate individual members whose indiscipline threatens the efforts of the wider membership whose primary focus is on the recovery of our Party and our Country. It should also be noted that, while Mr McCrea is an MLA, he cannot be described as a 'senior' member of the Ulster Unionist Party. Mr McCrea has never held a senior post within the UUP Assembly Group, was not voted on to the current Executive by his Constituency Association, and is not a Party Officer."

Ouch. I can't imagine that Mr McCrea, who is probably the most articulate member of the UUP Assembly Group, will let that go unanswered. Having brilliantly engineered a situation in which they have lost their only MP and one of their MLAs, maybe the party hierarchy are happy to make another MLA walk the plank. Strange that the refusal to tolerate individual members indisipline did not provoke a similar slap down to David McNarry when he pronounced Sir Reg Empey "finished" on our election coverage. According to the Belfast Telegraph, quoting Fred Cobain, Basil McCrea's comments may lead to disciplinary action depending on the outcome of a meeting on Tuesday.

David Campbell, meanwhile, has come in for some criticism of his own from the local Tory Treasurer, Roger Lomas, who has resigned from that post because of his disgruntlement with various aspects of the UCUNF campaign. In his statement Mr Lomas singles out the UUP Chairman, Mr Campbell, and the UUP Treasurer, Mark Cosgrove, who he accuses of being "responsible for the artificial problems of candidate selection".

Mr Lomas also takes a crack at Owen Paterson's Chief of Staff Jonathan Cain, accusing him of being responsible for the "disastrous 'Hatfield' incident" - a reference to the talks involving the DUP and UUP. However it's understood that Mr Cain himself harboured serious doubts about the Hatfield House talks, so maybe attempts to label him as the architect of that ill fated initiative are wide of the mark.

Would You Adam and Eve It?

Mark Devenport | 09:15 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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Given his background as an Orangeman, a former Secretary of the Lord's Day Observance Society and his past sympathy for the British Israelite movement, it was perhaps no surprise that Nelson McCausland should get involved in advocating creationism and a greater emphasis on Orange culture. But there's a difference between, say, Mervyn Storey as an interested individual and local politician asking the National Trust to consider explaining alternative views of the origins of the Giants' Causeway and Mr McCausland, as Culture Minister, appearing to come close to issuing directions to the Ulster Museum to get the Orange bannerettes and the Bible quotes out. The minister says his letter to the Museum was "very balanced", but balance is in the eye of the beholder - it's impossible to imagine an Alliance or nationalist minister writing a letter which would achieve a similar balance.

I'm just wondering in practice how the Museum might achieve the necessary balance. As families stroll through the displays will they be reading labels like "Scientists say fossils like this are the stony remains of animals which lived millions of years ago. However considering the biblical chronology drawn up by Archbishop Ussher, Stormont ministers reckon it can be no more than 6000 years old."?

Nelson McCausland wouldn't be drawn on his personal view of the age of the Earth on the Nolan show this morning, but Edwin Poots has previously stated that he believes in the "young earth" theory. Anyway, wherever you stand on the creationism, intelligent design, evolution sliding scale it's going to be hard to get an agreed consensus view.

Frankly it's going to get confusing having endless arguments raging in all the labels attached to display cases in the Ulster Museum. So perhaps the best thing might be to have a distinct dedicated Museum of Orange Culture, Ulster Scots and Creationism, which provides the alternative views so treasured by our minister (though maybe not the "Stork theory of babies" sarcastically suggested by Richard Dawkins on the Nolan show)

I suggest such a Museum's motto could draw on the famous rhyme of the English Lollard movement in the 1300s: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Orangeman?"

Tug of war over IFI?

Mark Devenport | 21:34 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

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Set up in 1986, the International Fund for Ireland has attracted more than £600 million and bankrolled more than 5000 projects in Northern Ireland and the border counties. Those projects included the Ballyconnell canal linking the Shannon and Erne waterways, the St Patrick's Centre in Downpatrick, and the Townsend enterprise park on the peaceline in West Belfast.

After a quarter of a century it seemed the IFI might be drawing to a natural close with a planned run down of its European funding. But in the USA, some Irish Americans felt there was still a need for the fund, putting their names to a letter to President Obama earlier this month. The letter called for more cash so the Fund could "provide the assistance needed to guarantee a civil society and a developing democracy, and to prevent a return to violence in Northern Ireland".

However there isn't a consensus across the Atlantic on this point, as Trina Vargo of the US Ireland Alliance, which is responsible for funding George Mitchell's scholars to visit Ireland, has made a competing bid for $5 million of annual Congressional funding for the next four years, She says that given the IFI has been receiving between 15 and 20 million dollars annually, her bid would leave the US Treasury between $40 and $60 million better off.

Ms Vargo says that since the 1990s the Fund has been frequently promising to wind itself up after just one more year, but became "one of those taps that was never turned off." She adds that "it is just silly that a handful of people are trying to suggest that the US-Ireland Alliance wants to take money away from the IFI. The IFI has said it doesn t need it, so there is no reason for Congress to provide it."

So Congress has a decision to make about where to put its cash. Given the tapering off of European peace funding and doubts over other philanthropic sources of cash some of the local voluntary groups dependent on these funds may be feeling nervous about their future.

O'Loan "on the naughty step"

Mark Devenport | 17:25 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

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That's how an SDLP source characterised Margaret Ritchie's decision to remove the party whip from Declan O'Loan over his "single nationalist party" comments. The fact that Mr O'Loan isn't commenting should perhaps be taken as an indication that his exile will be temporary.

It's understandable that the SDLP wants to close down this discussion, given the party's decent performance in the Westminster election. But the further that the memory of the IRA's campaign recedes into the past, the more difficult some young nationalist votesr might find it to understand what the difference is between the two parties.

Incidentally the political reforms now being piloted by Nick Clegg through Westminster could obviate the need for all this talk of unity, at least so far as General Elections are concerned. If under an AV system a voter can transfer his or her choice then there's no need for the SDLP to stand aside in Fermanagh or the UUP to stand aside in South Belfast.

However different considerations will arise in next year's Assembly election, when the squeeze will be on within nationalism to make Sinn Fein the biggest party in order to capture the First Minister's crown and within unionism to bolster the DUP in response. That's unless the Conservatives rush to the assistance of their embattled allies in the UUP by changing the rules at Stormont.

Acting O'Loan

Mark Devenport | 18:28 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

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It's been another busy day what with the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers up at Stormont and the Finance Department chewing over the £128 million of savings they are required to make either this year or next.

So maybe that's why I didn't immediately spot Declan O'Loan's ground breaking call for a single nationalist party. It also didn't help that I don't seem to be on his e-mail list.

According to the rumours around Stormont the screams could be heard down the corridors from angry SDLP MLAs of the view that Mr O'Loan's initiative drove a horse and coaches through all their criticism of first the unionist pact in Fermanagh and then Sinn Fein's calls for a nationalist response.

Instead of deepening Mr O'Loan's embarrassment by welcoming his one man initiative, Sinn Fein stuck in the boot by accusing him of partitionism as he had talked about a single nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Both unionist parties waded in chortling about the SDLP's "flagrant hypocrisy".

Mr O'Loan's initiative lasted about three hours when he issued a statement withdrawing his original call. Strangely he wasn't available for further explanation.

As the news broke of Mr O'Loan acting O'Loan, Alex Attwood was preparing for his first question time as Social Development Minister. Mr Attwood acknowledged that Belfast's Royal Exchange regeneration project, which had been expected to cost £360 million and to create 2000 construction jobs and 1000 retail jobs would not now go ahead. The DSD will have to soon surrender £110 million which had been earmarked for the scheme - Mr Attwood is hoping to claw back some of that cash for urban regeneration elsewhere. But coming on a day when the Treasury has just imposed £128 million of cuts and the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has talked about not redistributing any money which departments can't spend putting a lot of that Royal Exchange money towards deficit reduction may look like an attractive option.

Billions and Squillions

Mark Devenport | 08:07 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010

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On Good Morning Ulster earlier I summarised the "cut now, cut later" dillemma for the Executive. Within the last few minutes the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has been giving a few more specifics. His latest estimate for the potential cuts here in the forthcoming emergency budget is £120 - £150 million, which is lower than the £200 million figure which the DUP bandied about during the election campaign.

Mr Wilson also outlined three approaches - implement the cuts now in full, defer in full, or, his apparently favoured middle way, make some of the required savings but not all. He suggested that any money not spent by departments, which is normally redistributed in the in year spending rounds, should instead be used for our portion of deficit reduction.

Questioned about introducing water charges (a course of action the Finance Minister is thought to privately regard as inevitable), Mr Wilson argued that because of the legislative requirements these could not be brought into operation even in time for the next financial year.

Whilst our focus is inevitably on the prospects for immediate pain I don't think I adequately conveyed the scale of what may be coming down the track. The emergency budget in-year cuts proposed by the Westminster coalition amount to £6 billion. However this is just a first payment to try to reduce the UK's budget deficit, running, at the last estimate I saw, at £178 billion. That's around 12% of the UK GDP, whilst the EU deficit target is 3%. Reducing the deficit to the target figure of around £40 - £45 billion would require savings in the order of £133 billion. So if you paid off £6 billion in one go, you would still have another £127 billion to pay.

If, like me, you find all these figures seem like so much monopoly money, think of it in the terms my cameraman told me about when we were waiting for David Cameron to emerge from the Castle yesterday lunchtime.

A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years. And 178 billion? Well you do the maths.

Choice Cuts From Cameron

Mark Devenport | 18:23 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

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By telling our ministers they can take the pain now or take it in the next financial year, the Prime Minister has posed the Stormont Executive with a difficult choice. Their track record on water charges and freezing rates would appear to indicate the Executive will choose procrastination (or what the Alliance termed in their recent manifesto "cheap populism.") Peter Robinson says the decision may be governed by the breakdown of any proposed cuts between capital and revenue - if the Stormont capital budget is hit they may defer this to avoid an immediate impact on the local construction industry.

Messrs Robinson and McGuinness will get a chance to compare notes on the cuts with their Scottish and Welsh counterparts who are expected to visit Stormont at the start of next week.

One aspect of the potential deferral which caused some puzzlement amongst DUP aides is why the Conservatives did not make more of it during the election campaign. That way, they may have softened the assault on their local candidates after Mr Cameron's Paxman interview comments. Perhaps the answer is that they hadn't thought of offering the deferral at that stage in the game.

So the Executive faces a dillemma over postponing cuts. Down the line it could also face a dillemma over the Conservative proposal for lowering Corporation Tax, because, as this blog has pointed out before, that will require cutting the budget elsewhere. The discussion on Good Morning Ulster today between a business advocate and a trade unionist could be just the start of a period of classic left-right debates dominating our local politics.

Initially our cameras were invited in to record a reception the new Prime Minister attended at Belfast City Airport for his defeated general election candidates here. His message was that the Conservative and Ulster Unionist link doesn't have to be over. But before the meeting began our cameras were asked to leave. Now if the Conservatives and Unionists had managed to return three or four MPs to Westminster would the Cameron entourage have wanted that reception to be off camera?

Gerry's been framed

Mark Devenport | 13:58 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

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David Cameron just held his first PM news conference at Stormont Castle. More on the content later but visually the most striking moment was when Gerry Adams arrived halfway through and strode into the background waving to the cameras as Mr Cameron talked. A "You've Been Framed" moment...

Shotgun election

Mark Devenport | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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Mike Nesbitt made clear in this week's papers that he is no fan of election posters, and would like to see all parties agree to end the practice of putting their candidates' pictures up everywhere. But few politicians' posters are meeting as explosive an end as the Strangford UUP candidate's. My sources tell me his agent plans to donate them to the Carrowdore Shooting Club for target practice.

And who might be shooting at Mr Nesbitt? None other than the man who vanquished him at the polls - the DUP's Jim Shannon is, as regular readers of this blog will know, a shooting enthusiast who occasionally visits Carrowdore to let off a few rounds.

Shannon reads the fine print

Mark Devenport | 14:01 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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I ran into Jim Shannon on my way into Stormont today and asked him why he wasn't in Westminster for the election of the new Commons Speaker. He told me he wasn't heading over until next week, when he is due to swear his oath of allegiance.

Having read the fine print, the new Strangford MP pointed out that if he tried to take part in today's proceedings wihtout having been sworn in he could be liable for a £500 fine.

In theory the punishment could be even more drastic - an MP in breach of the regulation could have their seat declared vacant "as if they were dead". Let's watch closely this afternoon to see if any of the other 3 new MPs, Ian Paisley Junior, Margaret Ritchie or Naomi Long risk such a sanction.

UPDATE: Since writing this I've been contacted by a colleague in London who thinks Jim Shannon has got this wrong, because none of the MPs who took part in today's proceedings have yet taken the oath. My colleague says that after today's election of the Speaker, all the MPs, new or not, will take their oaths. Since this doesn't happen until after the election of the Speaker it seems logical that no sanction could follow for participating in the Speaker's election.

Incidentally the rules allow for MPs to swear their oaths in Scottish Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish. But there's no mention of Ulster Scots. Given that Mr Shannon has frequently made speeches in Stormont in Ulster Scots I feel an amendment coming on.


Naomi's Seating Plan

Mark Devenport | 10:24 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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With MPs gathering this afternoon to choose their Speaker, our local representative with the toughest choice to make over where to sit is the new East Belfast MP Naomi Long. Alliance is the sister party of the Liberal Democrats who, as junior members in the Westminster coalition, will be sitting on the government benches alongside the government.

But when Ms Long was elected she was at pains to stress that, whilst she had good relations with the Lib Dems, she would be an independent Alliance MP.

So sit with the Lib Dems and enjoy a sisterly direct line to power or sit with the opposition, thereby distancing yourself from any responsibility for government imposed cuts?

Naomi, according to her Alliance colleagues, has made her choice and will sit with on the opposition benches.

CSI: LGBT

Mark Devenport | 16:39 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

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First of all for those of you unfamiliar with these acronyms, CSI doesn't, for the purposes of this blog stand for Crime Scene Investigation.

Instead it refers to the Stormont Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy, the so called "Shared Future" policy. Progress on CSI was an Alliance condition for taking on the Justice job. Before David Ford signed on the dotted line Sinn Fein and the DUP confirmed they had agreed a paper. However at the time of writing the CSI strategy still hasn't been published - instead it has been circulated to Stormont departments for their opinions before going out to a wider consultation.

However today we got a glimpse of some of the detail courtesy of the LGBT activists who rallied on the steps at Stormont to mark the International Day of Action Against Homophobia (LGBT for the acronymically deficient stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender).

Last week a regular reader of this blog tipped me off that gay activists were disappointed with the draft in circulation of the CSI strategy. Today John O'Doherty from of the Rainbow Project confirmed that whilst the draft refers to homosexuality in relation to combatting hate crime and implementing equality measures, it does not include gay groups within the ambit of its proposed "good relations" policy. That is limited to religious and ethnic groups. Mr O'Doherty compared this to Iris Robinson's atitude: willing to condemn violent attacks on gay individuals whilst unwilling to be inclusive of gays in a wider sense.

The Rainbow Project's criticism provoked a lively debate on this afternoon's Stormont Live with the SDLP's Alex Attwood arguing that the gay community must be included in the good relations strategy. Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson sympathised with that view, but initially argued that those who drafted the policy were boxed in by previous legislation. However as the discussion continued she seemed to concede that the real reason Sinn Fein couldn't deliver more to the LGBT community was the attitude of the DUP.

No doubt this will provoke some responses, on either side of the argument, when the paper is finally published. But even if the gay community presses for change, the DUP will have a veto over what change, if any, is incorporated into the final CSI strategy.

Harmonising VAT

Mark Devenport | 16:15 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

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MLAs debated a Sinn Fein motion on all island economic regeneration today. It prompted some predictable exchanges with the DUP accusing Sinn Fein of pursuing "fantasy economics". One aspect of the motion which intrigued me as that it talked about harmonising not just corporation tax, which at a headline rate of 12.5% is much lower than the UK equivalent, but also VAT, which is 21% on most goods south of the border. That compares to the standard UK rate of 17.5%.

Of course the deliberations of our Stormont politicians on these topics are entirely academic. But with the new Chancellor George Osborne confirming the date for his emergency budget as June 22nd, many economic commentators are taking it as read that he will increase UK VAT at least to 20%. If this happens what will be the impact on the cross border shopping boom of recent times?

Anonymous Generosity

Mark Devenport | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

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During yesterday's Inside Politics I was joined by a lecturer/student combination - Pete Shirlow from Queen's University and 19 year old Martin McCauley who is one of his law students. Martin stood in North Belfast as an independent, on a platform which included not just his jokey posters ("Tough on Crime, Tougher on Women Drivers") but also a raft of serious policies including promising to attend 70% of Commons votes. That could be quite a challenge for our new MPs given the volcanic ash problems.

Chatting to Martin I observed that his adventure in North Belfast (where he got 403 votes) had been quite an expensive experiment, as he would have forfeited his deposit. However he told me that during his campaign his agent had taken a call from a female well wisher who had said she wanted to make a donation. Team McCauley called at the door expecting to get £20 for their troubles, but instead their anonymous benefactor handed over £500, covering the entire cost of the deposit.

On the topic of lost deposits, an electoral reform pressure group, regional top up, has calculated that nearly £1 million was lost in deposits across the UK, with UKIP and the Greens paying out the most. Regional Top Up suggest lowering the threshold to 1% (which would have saved Martin McCauley his cash). perhaps another way to rule out frivolous candidacies, without skewing the system towards the rich, would be to provide an option for unsuccessful candidates to perform, say, 80 hours community service.

So far as I know no one is pushing Martin McCauley for Ulster Unionist leader. But if Sir Reg Empey's interview with me is to be believed failure to hold an elected position should be no bar to putting your name forward. The Ulster Unionist Executive resolved to press ahead with the selection of Assembly candidates prior to a leadership contest in the autumn, and Sir Reg told me that any party member is able to stand for election as leader, not just an MLA. The suspicion in some quarters is that this delay could be calculated to build up the profile of some of the unsuccessful Westminster candidates, like Mike Nesbitt.

Some may argue that risking everything on an unelected leader would be crazy. But this is a party which just threw away it's only safe Westminster seat, in North Down, so don't rule anything out.

Whoever is the next leader, he or she will have to make some big decisions about the future direction of the UUP - is it towards the DUP, or closer to the Conservatives? The puzzling thing about the direction agreed this weekend is that the Assembly candidates are supposed to be selected before they know what the chosen path forward will be.

Bread and Butter Politics

Mark Devenport | 15:02 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

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The new Secretary of State teetered on the brink of one of those first day banana skins when talking about his convivial relations with nationalists and republicans. He said he'd been to some of the deepest and wildest parts of Northern Ireland in the company of Sinn Fein politicians. When asked by my colleague Gareth Gordon if that meant he regarded the places Sinn Fein represents as deep and wild, he at first defended himself by arguing that Forkhill felt very different, then steadied himself by claiming that Crossmaglen makes the best bread (McNamees according to Eamonn Mallie).

Not for the first time in local politics (remember Ian Paisley's fadge), breaking bread broke the ice, and the SoS made off, refusing to disclose the exact day of David Cameron's visit next week.

On the cuts, Mr Paterson said Northern Ireland would have to take its share of the efforts to reduce the UK budget deficit. However he repeated his view that NI could be designated a special enterprise zone and that a report will be produced examining the possibility of devolving powers over corporation tax to Stormont.

All the Stormont parties think a cut in corporation tax would be a good idea, but during the election the DUP and Sinn Fein argued this should be accomplished without any accompanying cut to the local budget. The Conservatives and Unionists responded that this would be in breach of the relevant European ruling (known as the Azores judgment) and that any advantage which accrues from lower regional corporation tax would have to be paid for by cuts in the regional budget.

So it's not something for nothing. Last month the We Won't Pay Campaign joined up the dots, arguing that any reduction in corporation tax would come hand in hand with a decision to levy water charges. Last Tuesday, the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson sounded far from convinced that lower corporation tax would be a magic wand. So even though the Assembly might get the power, will they use it?

Another interesting aspect of today's news conferences included an apparent softening in the Conservatives and Unionists' manifesto pledge to ban double jobbing. Mr Paterson said he would like to come to a voluntary agreement with the local parties to end dual mandates, but reserved the right to legislate if necessary.

When the First and Deputy First Ministers came out to talk to us they gave a cautious welcome to the corporation tax plan. Peter Robinson described such a move as advantageous but wondered whether it would survive further scrutiny by the Treasury.

The DUP leader acknowledged there had been bruising exchanges with the Tories during the election campaign. But he expressed confidence that as mature politicians they could all move on.

One of the most striking moments was when Eamonn Mallie asked Mr Robinson about his defeat in East Belfast and Martin McGuinness leapt in to shift the focus. The Deputy First Minister said he didn't think this was the most important aspect of the recent election - instead he wanted to draw attention to the defeat of the "rejectionist" TUV.

After arguing in public at Limavady, we have now moved to a situation in which Martin McGuinness is acting as Peter Robinson's press minder. However the DUP leader was ready to answer the question, admitting he had suffered a personal disappointment, but going on to defend his party's general strategy.

The Stormont political double act went on to offer the Downing Street double act a few tips about partnership politics and coalitions. The First Minister said Messrs Cameron and Clegg should enjoy their first six months as they would find they have competing demands as time goes on. The FM and DFM quipped that if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hit a rocky patch they could head over to Hillsborough Castle as a suitable venue to sort out their differences.

Chuckle Brothers Revisited

Mark Devenport | 15:18 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

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Listening to the first Cameron Clegg joint news conference I couldn't help thinking about our own political double acts. The jocularity (Cameron's apologies for calling Nick Clegg his "favourite joke" and suggesting they share a car to the one outstanding constituency election) reminded me of the Paisley McGuinness Chuckle Brothers era.

Of course sometimes the "Big Man" got away with putting down "the Deputy" partly because of his age and partly because Mr McGuinness was still pinching himself that Sinn Fein had managed to reel the DUP in. The chemistry wouldn't work that way with these two (memo to PM: jokes are okay, jibes aren't).

Personal chemistry is vital with political double acts. The atmosphere was often poisonous between Messrs Trimble and Mallon. I can remember a period when the civil servants tried to insist that if reporters ask the FM a question they must also address an inquiry to the DFM. Sometimes we obliged, sometimes not, But if it wasn't newsworthy the supplementary inevitably hit the cutting room floor (memo to PM and DPM: don't try to enforce starchy conventions in your bid to assert your status).

Our current double act has amply demonstrated how to do it (remember the appearance on the Stormont Castle steps alongside Sir Hugh Orde after last year's dissident murders) and how not to do it (times when they should have appeared together and that time when they argued in public after a north south meeting at Limavady).

But I am now looking forward to the first meeting between, on the one hand, the PM and the DPM, and on the other the FM and the DFM. There should be so much personal chemistry surging around the room it could set off a chain reaction.

Cuts over the Rainbow?

Mark Devenport | 17:42 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

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It's looking increasingly likely that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are edging back towards a deal. If so, that makes the local 13 MPs somewhat less fantastic, as their votes will hold far less clout.

So should we brace ourselves for the Tory cuts the other parties predicted during the election campaign? Or will the Liberal Democrats have a moderating impact?

And do I detect a sense of "We told you so" from the following statement from Martin McGuinness which claims that some local MPs had exaggerated their potential influence.

The Deputy First Minister says that "over the course of the past 24 hours Sinn Féin have been in contact with party leaders here and with both the British Labour party and the Tories. It is clear that whatever negotiations are going on at Westminster they do not involve any of the parties from here. Despite some local MPs clearly trying to exaggerate their influence. What we need to build is our own strategy to defeat the proposed cuts. This is too serious an issue to leave to the numbers game in Westminster or to parties who have already committed their votes before the election even happened."

He goes on to argue that the Executive should discuss the matter urgently and "needs to be ready and waiting for the next British government. We need to be ready and united to stand up to a Tory/Lib Dem coalition who will want to press through cuts to frontline services."

Leverage

Mark Devenport | 10:53 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

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A couple of commenters took exception to my statement that Sinn Fein don't have much leverage. Of course it would be absurd, given their negotiating prowess during the peace process, to suggest republicans don't have power and influence. However I was talking about close votes in the House of Commons, where "ipso facto" abstentionists don't have the same clout as those who vote.

Listening to the bewilderment of London commentators about midnight talks, secret meetings, side deals and unlikely coalitions was quite amusing. Hasn't that been our meat and drink for years? Although there's no way Sinn Fein will reconsider their abstentionism in order to get involved, I wonder what's going through their heads - here we have a classic hothouse talks scenario and the past masters of hardball negotiating aren't involved. Maybe they could accompany the 13 MPs in a freelance consultancy capacity.

If we could be heading for electoral reform, the question also arises as to how that might impact on the local scene. My election night colleague, Nicholas Whyte, has contributed this fascinating analysis of what might have been on Thursday night.

Of course if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats resolve their differences then all this talk of the fantastic 13 may fade away. Let's see which way the pendulum swings today.

In The Mix

Mark Devenport | 22:58 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010

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I'm in the office at 23:00 having made my way back to work for our late TV news on BBC1. Gordon Brown's decision to signal his intention to stand down, coupled with the Liberal Democrats move into talks with Labour, was a potential game changer so far as our local MPs are concerned. Suddenly the arithmetic adds up for them being a part of a "rainbow coalition".

The supposed winning margin, of course, is 326. In fact, given that 5 Sinn Fein MPs will refuse to take their seats, the actual margin is 324 (CORRECTION: that should be 323).

As things stand Labour and the Liberal Democrats in coalition would have 315 seats. But if they were able to rely on the support of all the 13 Northern Ireland MPs who will take their seats then that number would rise to 328. That's above the winning margin, however you calculate it.

Of course Labour and the Liberal Democrats could seek support from the single Green, the 6 SNP or the 3 Plaid Cymru. But there's no doubt our local MPs are very much in the mix.

As already reported on this blog, during Sunday's Inside Politics both Naomi Long and Ian Paisley Junior pioneered the notion of the 13 local MPs forming a coherent group negotiating to defend Northern Ireland's block grant. This line of argument was revisited during Deputy First Minister's questions today.

In addition (even though as abstentionists Sinn Fein don't have much leverage) Gerry Adams held a brief meeting this afternoon to discuss defending the block grant with Margaret Ritchie and David Ford - the two unionist leaders sent their apologies. It's thought the same topic will be up for discussion when the Stormont Executive meets on Thursday.

Of course the parties may pull in different directions. The SDLP, for example, raised their support for proportional representation at Westminster elections during Deputy First Minister's questions. I'm not sure where the others stand on this , although it seems that if we had an AV system it would obviate the need for any electoral pacts (something the SDLP would no doubt find a relief).

However on economic matters the different party manifestoes had plenty of overlaps.

As things stand the 3 SDLP MPs will back Labour. So, probably, would the independent unionist Sylvia Hermon. Alliance's Naomi Long stresses that she's not going to formally take the Liberal Democrat whip but her inclinations will probably be to back her sister party.

That leaves the 8 DUP MPs. In the last parliament they voted more than 90% of the time with the Conservatives, and held talks with the Tories at the start of the year at Hatfield House. But of course we've had a bruising election campaign since then in which the DUP and the Conservatives and Unionists traded blows, and David Cameron made some not so very veiled comments about the Robinsons, saying his candidates not be a "swish family". Not only that but on the very eve of the election Gordon Brown wrote to the DUP leader assuring him there would be no cuts to the Stormont block grant during this financial year.

Put that together and who would bet against the DUP being happy to help give the Conservatives a bloody nose? Especially if Labour and the Liberal Democrats came up with the requisite financial assurances.

That said, tonight there's evidence that not all Labour politicians are happy about anything which might smack of pork barrel politics. The former Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid argued that a "rainbow coalition" would be disastrous because any deals with Scottish and Northern Irish politicians would convince English voters that they would have to bear the brunt of any future cuts. Earlier in the evening I heard Labour's Diane Abbott joking that if Scottish MPs demanded "building bridges to nowhere", she would demand a bridge in Hackney.

And of course there are those comments of recent days from Ken Clarke, Lord Ashdown and George Howarth implying that a deal with some Northern Ireland politicians would be unthinkable. Although as Ian Paisley Junior replied, they may be about to find out that beggars can't be choosers.

Knives not out

Mark Devenport | 16:23 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010

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After the election decapitation, you might have expected the knives to be out for the unionist leaders at the Assembly today. But far from it. The DUP MLAs applauded Peter Robinson to the rafters and insisted that they wouldn't have their choice of leader dictated by tactical voting by other parties' supporters. The DUP have obviously developed a new form of technology by which they can scan ballot papers and tell which come from PUP and UUP supporters consoiring to give them a bloody nose and which come from disgruntled DUPers.

The message is that "Peter is our leader and he shall not be moved". Let's see if this holds all the way into their next election campaign.

The mood within the Conservatives and Unionists was more downbeat. Basil McCrea said he could hear cheering from all the other party rooms, but there wasn't any in the UUP office. That said, any bloodletting has been postponed, with Sir Reg Empey expected to make a statement to his party's executive on Saturday. If as expected he stands down, that could trigger a leadership contest with Danny Kennedy, Tom Elliot, Michael McGimpsey and the aforementioned Basil McCrea all possible candidates.

Whoever leads the party will have to spell out their attitude to the ill starred UCUNF experiment. If the UUP junk the link up it opens out potential options so far as unionist unity is concerned. The Open Unionism web site has set out the arguments in favour of unity and the case against.

We spoke to the DUP's Gregory Campell on Stormont Live. Apart from reiterating his support for Peter Robinson, and rubbing David McNarry's nose in a previous inaccurate prediction of how few seats the DUP would hold, he seemed in less than a hurry to give up his MLA job. At the launch of the DUP's campaign Peter Robinson said the DUP executive "approved an officer recommendation that will mean any of our Assembly Members elected to Westminster will give up their Assembly seats.". Let's see how swiftly this pledge is implemented.

Over on the nationalist side there has been less soul searching, as both parties held on to what they had. During Martin McGuinness's question time, the notion of the election victors getting together to form a united front was raised. Naomi Long suggested the First and Deputy First should meet all the successful MPs to discuss that (which seemed a mite cruel on Peter Robinson as he would be the only non MP in the room).

The SDLP raised the question of Proportional Representation. I know this is top of the agenda in the Conservative Liberal Democrat talks but it took me aback a little to hear it being pushed on the Assembly floor. However then it hit me - adopt PR for Westminster elections and there would be no need for any talk of those pesky sectarian pacts. A problem shared (on an AV or STV basis) is a problem solved.

13: Lucky for some?

Mark Devenport | 17:01 UK time, Sunday, 9 May 2010

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After all the conflict of the election campaign, there was an outbreak of political harmony during this lunchtime's "Inside Politics". I played Ian Paisley Junior some of Lord Ashdown's comments questioning whether a coalition involving the DUP and other regional parties could be a recipe for stable government. The new North Antrim MP replied that the London parties may soon find that "beggars can't be choosers".

If Lord Ashdown implied that any role for regional parties was very much Plan C or Plan B, then Ian Junior's response was that the local MPs planning to take their seats should be prepared. He suggested that the 13 politicians (the same number as the Derry Apprentice Boys) should work together on areas like finance and the defence of the local economy. Alliance's Naomi Long agreed that the block of 13 should work together.

Although Alliance is a sister party of the Liberal Democrats, Naomi Long is stressing that she is an Alliance MP, not a Liberal Democrat and as such is a free operator. This is in part because she's personally a left leaning Liberal, but also maybe that if the Liberal Democrats propped up a Conservative government which implements drastic cuts she wouldn't want to be the only local MP seen to be shoring up such a government.

It's hard to see the 3 SDLP MPs (or Lady Hermon) propping up David Cameron as Prime Minister, so maybe the "block of 13" only comes into action if the current talks fail and a Lib-Lab pact is back on the cards. But if today's "Inside Politics" is anything to go by some of our politicians see benefit in a public show of unity on behalf of NI PLC at this stage.

Mulling it over

Mark Devenport | 07:44 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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Maybe it's sleep deprivation, but I'm having difficulty getting my head around all the many implications of last night's drama. So if this is a bit disjointed apologies. But here goes.

1. Things will probably move more quickly within the UUP than the DUP. The experiment with the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists was a big gamble which didn't pay off. Sir Reg looks like he will be gone by the start of next week. UNCUNF should have concentrated their forces on potential targets rather than getting distracted by the volcano disrupted Tory VIP visits.

I began to smell a rat in South Antrim when I was gathering material for my TV constituency profile. I had a lot of trouble pinning Sir Reg down to a time to film him on the stump with voters. I was utterly bewildered - if it's your number one target surely you would be hitting the streets all day every day?

2. Something about the UCUNF debacle reminds me of the infamous "Simply British" campaign. It assumed that all unionists have an absolute attachment to everything British and place their passion for the union above everything. Hence when the DUP talked of negotiating on behalf of the people of Ulster, UCUNF accused them of being closet nationalists. But many DUP supporters may have shrugged - what's wrong with a bit of Ulster nationalism, if you are looking after your own? Making an Ulster politician a cabinet minister might be great for the politician, but what's in it for us voters?

3. Peter Robinson has shown limpet like qualities in clinging to power. One of the problems the DUP faces in embarking on any transition is that the staff at DUP HQ are all inextricably linked to Mr Robinson. And there's no one sharpening their knives to come for the leader. Nevertheless does the DUP want to go into next year's Assembly election campaign with a leader carrying so much baggage? Nigel Dodds may be reluctant to take over the helm, but how about an arrangement where he is the Westminster leader and Arlene Foster reprises her previous very succesful cameo as First Minister? Maybe not next week, nor even the week after, but some time before the party has to hit the campaign trail again.

4. Unity looks tempting to unionists when they reflect on results in places like North Belfast and Upper Bann, where Sinn Fein is on the march, and the possibility of Martin McGuinness becoming First MInister next year. But many Ulster Unionists still nurse bruises from the rough times after the Good Friday Agreement. The Conservative escape route may have been closed off, but will the UUP edge closer to the DUP or just become a decreasing rump?

5. The SDLP only got 1.3% of the vote more than UCUNF, but in a first past the post election there's all the difference in the world between 3 MPs and 0 MPs. Sinn Fein will criticise the SDLP for imperilling Fermanagh and South Tyrone but Margaret Ritchie will be happy with her first outing as leader. Sinn Fein insist that abstentionism will never be abandoned. But if Fianna Fail entered politics here in the future at a council or Assembly level and abstained from Westminster simply by not standing could that change the equation?

6. The TUV, as I said on air overnight, was the "dog that didn't bark". It's hard to see Jim Allister soldiering on if it looks as if he could be a one man band in a future Assembly. However the TUV did have enough bite to contribute to Peter Robinson's demise - David Vance's 1,856 votes helped cost Mr Robinson his Westminster job.

7. Alliance's result was stunning. But is this the start of a trend or a localised phenomenon built around the vibrant candidacy of Naomi Long? At a Slugger O'Toole breakfast this morning someone argued that there mignt be a move towards cross community politics exemplified by the Mayor's result in East Belfast plus Alasdair McDonnell garnering unionist votes in the south of the city. I'd acknowledge that in addition to the Alec Maskey vote Dr McDonnell picked up support from across the spectrum.

That said, before anyone can talk about a real growth in cross community politics let's see the East Belfast replicated elsewhere. And let's see some serious attempt to address the Stormont rules which put "other" MLAs on a lesser footing than their nationalist and unionist counterparts.

8. Given the hung parliament our local parties may still play a part especially if the Conservative and Liberal Democrat talks run into trouble. Here's a little conundrum - the Conservatives are resisting proportional representation, but if that had applied last night the Conservative and Unionist experiment would not have fared so badly, as they took more than 15% of the vote.

9. I'm tired - and Radio 5 wants me on at 6.30 am. Better sign off.

Goodbye Reg

Mark Devenport | 02:14 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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On our live programme, David McNarry has just said he thinks Sir Reg Empey's leadership is finished. Given that Peter Robinson is also in trouble, could our other studio guest Arlene Foster have a future as the leader of a united unionist movement?

A canny decision?

Mark Devenport | 01:49 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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I was just watching the jubilant David Ford on the live feed from Newtownards and the following thought occurred to me. Didn't the DUP go along with making him Justice Minister in part because, unlike the Ulster Unionists, Alliance didn't present any electoral threat?

In hindsight it could rank alongside canny decisions like bringing back Jim Allister back from retirement.

Although maybe the Long leap forward would have happened in East Belfast irrespective of any ministerial appointments at Stormont.

Peter Robinson's future?

Mark Devenport | 01:13 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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In many ways Peter Robinson's ability to hang on to the DUP leadership and the First Minister's job during the saga of his wife's difficulties was an extraordinary example of resilience under fire. I would have subscribed to the conventional view that he would survive this poll, albeit with a reduced majority.

However his shock defeat in East Belfast undoubtedly damages his stock. None of the DUP MPs who we have been speaking to live on our election special wishes to be Brutus wielding his dagger, but tonight's results increases the standing of the Paisley and potentially the Dodds dynasties in the party. So who will be in charge of any negotiations with the future would-be Prime Ministers?

Our psephologist Nicholas Whyte has just shown me a friend's blog, asking whether East Belfast could be the Portillo moment of this election?

A Stunning Result

Mark Devenport | 00:52 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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So Naomi Long has decapitated the DUP leader Peter Robinson. Astonishing. And who would have thought Northern Ireland would have produced one of the first votes for Nick Clegg?

Southbound

Mark Devenport | 00:10 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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Conor Macauley in South Antrim tells us that it's early days, but Willie McCrea looks to be ahead of Sir Reg Empey - if that's borne out by the results it's bad news for UCUNF as this was its most realistic target.

Meanwhile the Lucid Talk pollster Bill White has been good enough to share his estimates of South Belfast with me he reckons the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell will get 34.7%, the DUP 26.2%, UCUNF 20.8% Alliance 15.3% and the Greens 3%.

Twitters and alerts

Mark Devenport | 23:38 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010

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I'm at the centre of the web here in the studio so watching the reports coming in from our reporters. They reckon there's been a landslide in North Down for Lady Sylvia Hermon and Ian Parsley conceded defeat on his twitter site a few minutes ago.

Keiron Tourish, as you may have just seen on the TV, has had to leave the Templemore Sports Complex along with all the count workers due to a hijacked car. Our guests are now debating how to combat the dissident threat.

Update: We are also getting reports from our stringer at the North Antrim count claiming Ian Paisley Jr. is "streets ahead".

Ulster's Opportunity?

Mark Devenport | 22:02 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010

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So the exit poll results have just come in, with the Conservatives projected to get 307 seats. That's 19 short of the notional majority of 326 seats, although of course the absence of Sinn Fein's MPs lower that margin, probably to 324.

What that means, if true, is that whilst the DUP on their own wouldn't be able to guarantee anyone a majority, our local MPs could certainly be in the mix. That would be either as part of a Unionist plus Scottish and Welsh nationalist group propping up the Conservatives or, alternatively, a similar rainbow coalition propping up a Lib-Lab pact.

As they always say, it's only a poll - the next few hours should prove fascinating.

108: the answer

Mark Devenport | 08:01 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010

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Congratulations to Disgusted in Derry and Alan in Belfast who got the two answers I had been expecting - it is the number of local candidates and the age of the oldest voter here. Also congratulations to Susie Flood who came up with an answer which is correct, but which I hadn't a clue about.

I hear on the radio this morning that Queen's University is looking for 110 people to take part in a trial eating dark cocoa rich chocolate for a week to see if it's good for their hearts. Maybe our candidates plus two liggers could participate.

Under our traditional polling day purdah rules, the BBC doesn't touch any discussion of issues or parties whilst the voters are making their choices. So I shall be maintaining radio silence from now until the polls close at 10 p.m.

Poll Verdict

Mark Devenport | 19:03 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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The Belfast Telegraph published the one and only poll of this campaign. But the UK Polling Report website appears far from impressed by the constituency breakdown. Anyway it's only 12 hours to the opening of the polling stations, so it won't be long before we get the real result

108

Mark Devenport | 17:50 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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That's the number of MLAs at Stormont. But the number also has a double significance for this election. Any guesses why?

Foot in mouth

Mark Devenport | 17:38 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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When trying to sum up Ken Clarke's tone in chatting about "doing deals with Ulstermen" i told Evening Extra he sounded a bit like Joseph Chamberlain talking about Ulster as if it was " a far off country of which we know nothing".

Not for the first time I've mangled my quotes - I was of course referring to Neville Chamberlain's quote about the Sudetenland, and wrongly attributed it to his Liberal Unionist father.

Thoughts on turnout

Mark Devenport | 17:36 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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In the wake of Westminster expenses scandals and allegations of sleaze will local voters show their disgust by refusing to turn up at the polling stations tomorrow? Or will Northern Ireland buck the trend across the UK by registering higher than average turnouts?

During the troubles the turnout here tended to be extremely high. In the famous Fermanagh by-election which returned the hunger striker Bobby Sands as an MP in April 1981 nearly 87% of those eligible to vote turned out. But was this a sign of a healthy democracy, or just people's determination to vote against the "other side" as much as for their own?

Westminster election turnouts have traditionally dwarfed European and council elections. But the trend in recent years has been downwards, especially on the eastern seaboard. In the 2005 General Election 62.5% voted here. That's down on the 2001 turnout of 68.4%.

Strolling around Antrim town centre gathering material for a piece on the local constituency contest, I was struck by the number of people who expressed complete disinterest in the election. One man boasted "never voted in my life". Another said "no one can really do anything about anything. They say they will do but it doesn't ever end up that way, does it". A woman spat out her contempt for the politicians, saying she would only consider voting if "they cleaned out Stormont and got rid of all the crooks."

They say the young generation are amongst the most apathetic. But my colleague Gareth Gordon found some enthusiastic first time voters when he attended an election debate at Ballyclare High School. One sixth former told him it was "hypocritical for us to sit here and pass comment on what the politicians are saying if we don't go out and vote". Another first time voter said that "democracy is not something that should be taken for granted. To have a vote and the privilege to vote is not something everybody has, so if we have it we should use it."

So maybe there's hope for the future. When the turnout figures come in we shall once again be looking out for an east west split. Fermanagh South Tyrone may never scale the turnout heights of the April 1981 by-election but the controversy over Rodney Connor's unity candidacy could well ensure heavy polling. However in the eastern constituencies increasing apathy might again be the order of the day.

Canvassing Dress Code

Mark Devenport | 15:29 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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David McNarry had just taken off his tie after a hot day out canvassing in Strangford. He knocked one last door in Ballynahinch to be greeted by a dapper gentleman waering something akin to a smoking jacket. As Mr McNarry launched into his UCUNF spiel, the voter interrupted to say "I'm sorry, but I don't talk to anyone who comes to my door without wearing a tie". The Ulster Unionist MLA protested that he'd been wearing a tie all day and was getting hot and tired. "Sorry" replied the voter "that's my policy".

Mr McNarry retired sartorially wounded, but pressed a colleague into service who was wearing a tie to go and knock the door and try again.

Alec's Premature Retirement

Mark Devenport | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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Gerry Adams held a mini-walkabout in Andersonstown (he got about 20 yards before stopping at a cafe for a cup of coffee). A pensioner with a black flat cap visited the Sinn Fein President and his posse outside Connolly House. But when he spotted Alec Maskey, the senior citizen quipped "I thought you'd retired!"

It was an obvious reference to Margaret Ritchie's jibe during the election debate when she claimed that Mr Maskey's withdrawal from South Belfast amounted to his "retirement from politics". When I asked him where he planned to spend his retirement, Alec replied he would be working hard in South Belfast "just like I have for the past 9 years".

Ken Clarke's Clanger

Mark Devenport | 08:58 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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Sir Reg Empey didn't have a bad day yesterday - David Cameron's visit helped rouse his party from the bout of depression it will have suffered when mulling over the Belfast Telegraph poll. Then in the evening he didn't do badly in the BBC NI Leaders' debate, trying, as I pointed out here to run his achilles heel over devolving justice into a strong point.

But the problem of getting together with another party is that you can never legislate for what someone might say out of your earshot. So in today's Daily Telegraph story it's Ken Clarke who comes up with the choice quote, "in the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it's not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society."

Is this the way the Tories really think about Northern Ireland, or should voters trust to David Cameron's avowed "passion" for Ulster's place in the Union instead? The only silver lining for UCUNF may be that Mr Clarke's comments have come so late in the day that their opponents won't be able to make as much traction with them as would otherwise be the case.

UPDATE: Here's the Conservative line on the clanger: "Ken Clarke was clearly referring to the DUP who, along with their Scottish and Welsh Nationalist allies, have been campaigning at this election for the economic and political instability of a hung parliament. David Cameron was in Northern Ireland campaigning for Conservative and Unionis candidates to be at the heart of a Conservative and Unionist government. There is only one real unionist party standing at this election - the Conservatives and Unionists".

Fermanagh Follies

Mark Devenport | 17:58 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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A DUP source in Fermanagh tells me that some of Rodney Connor's posters have had "no tory here" scrawled on them. Also they say some unionist voters have received letters purporting to come from loyalists attacking Mr Connor's track record. My source doesn't know who is behind the letters but claims it is dirty tricks designed to impact on the tight race.

UPDATE: The "No Tory Here" slogans aren't scrawled as I originally thought but are apparently fairly professional posters.

Moats and Beams

Mark Devenport | 16:35 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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Well it was David 1 Volcano 0. Whether the Conservative leader will chalk up a similar victory when its David versus the Voters only Friday morning will tell.

His battle against the ash clouds provided material for the best gags at the La Mon hotel in County Down. Sir Reg Empey said the critics had argued that "David Cameron wouldn't be able to get here unless he could walk on water". He followed that with an enigmatic "Well?"

The Tory leader followed through by joking that he'd have got here even if he had to don his swimming trunks.

In his speech he made his already trailed pledge not to single Northern Ireland out for cuts. But if some might have seen this as an olive branch towards the DUP, he followed through with a few barbs about double jobbing and politicians "dipping into multiple pots". Then there was a pledge that the Conservatives and Unionists would never be a "swish family": an obvious reference to the Robinsons.

When I asked him if this wouldn't make any potential negotiations with Peter Robinson rather more difficult should there be a hung parliament on Friday, Mr Cameron replied by saying he had seen "the moat" on his drive towards the La Mon hotel and called it as he saw it. So what was this "moat"? Mr Robinson's house doesn't have a moat, even though it's not far from Dundonald's Moat Park. Did the Conservative leader confuse it with his own backbenchers well documented castles with moats? No doubt the biblically inclined DUP will be telling him to take the beam out of his eye before seeking the mote (not the moat) in theirs.

David Versus The Volcano

Mark Devenport | 10:42 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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After a bit of on again, off again this morning the latest is that the Conservative leader is still heading to Northern Ireland today, flying under the ash cloud.

If he makes it, he's expected to try to deal with the Paxman interview controversy by stressing that he won't single NI out for cuts over and above anywhere else in the UK.

But come Friday will he be looking to the DUP for support, rather than his local followers in UCUNF?

The Belfast Telegraph has the one and only opinion poll of the campaign today, and if it's to be believed it's good news for the DUP, less so for Conservatives and Unionists. It suggests the DUP will hold all their 9 seats (the closest being South Antrim where it puts Sir Reg Empey 6 points behind William McCrea). It also suggests that Fermanagh is too close to call between Michelle Gildernew and Rodney Connor, that Lady Sylvia Hermon is comfortable in North Down, that Alasdair McDonnell is similarly wellahead in South Belfast, that Jim Allister is 8 points adrift of Ian Paisley Jnr in North Antrim, and that Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd is doing very well, four points behind David Simpson in Upper Bann.

You always, however, have to treat polls with a small pinch of salt - this one has a sample of 3200 people which is big across Northern Ireland but smaller when you break it down to constituency level (less than 200 each). The interviews were conducted between April 22nd and the 29th.

And as I always say no survey is a substitute for the real thing, due in less than 48 hours.

Sir Reg makes his pitch

Mark Devenport | 14:43 UK time, Sunday, 2 May 2010

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I'm just off air with the last election edition of "Inside Politics". Sir Reg Empey responded to Shaun Woodward's assault on David Cameron as posing a "terrible risk" to the future of Britain. I questioned him about his party's committment to a report on cutting corporation tax - Sir Reg countered that this wouldn't be a Varney Report Mark 2.

We also discussed, amongst other things, whether he had a precise idea of the extent to which a Tory emergency budget would impact on the local budget (the answer seemed to be no), the Tory plans for cutting the number of MPs and whether David Cameron's rise in the UK wide polls might end up laying into the hands of the DUP, should it leave them as kingmakers.

I was joined by our regular commentator Fionuala O'Connor and Nicholas Whyte whose election website has long been a sine qua non for those of us reporting local politics. Nicholas will be joining me as number cruncher in chief for the BBC's overnight coverage of the results as they come in, which will go on air at 10 p.m. on Thursday night on BBC1.

On the topic of hung parliaments, today's News of the World, factors in the potential role of the unionists, but gets the arithmetic wrong. During an election rehearsal, Nicholas and I tried to work out how they calculated that 311 Tories plus unionists equals a majority of four, but our calculator blew up.


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