BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for August 2010

Edwin Poots' Inquiries

Mark Devenport | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010


As Environment Minister, Edwin Poots has the power to call inquiries into matters of public importance, and today has illustrated how he is open for criticism no matter what he decides.

Back in March the minister announced a public inquiry into Belfast City Airport's application to extend its runway. After reports earlier this month that the inquiry would be delayed pending a report on noise pollution, today Ryanair's Michael O'Leary pulled his operation out of the City Airport. The development will alarm those depending on City Airport for work but has been welcomed by opponents of the runway extension who argue that long haul flights should operate out of the International Airport.

While Mr O'Leary is angry at Mr Poots for delaying matters by calling an inquiry, over in Glenavy some local residents will be even more furious at the minister for not ordering an inquiry into a proposed chicken litter incinerator. The project has been supported by many in the local poultry industry as a way to meet EU requirements for dealing with their waste. But it has caused consternation amongst campaigners who deny they are just NIMBYs, instead arguing that the technological and economic case for the plant is flawed.

Mr Poots' green light will delight the company behind the incinerator proposal Rose Energy. However it has caused concern for another local firm Randox which fears the impact an incinerator might have on the environment in which it makes diagnostic products.

Both the airport and the incinerator are difficult decisions for the minister to get right, and some brickbats are guaranteed no matter how he tries to keep the various interested parties satisfied.

UPDATE: Amongst the criticism coming in, the Communities Against the Lough Neagh Incinerator has pointed out that there were almost 7,000 objections to the Rose Energy proposal, and less than 2,000 objections to the City Airport runway. The TUV leader Jim Allister, meanwhile, has taken Mr Poots to task for his delay in ordering the inquiry at the airport, pointing out that "the planning application was lodged in November 2008, yet it took Minister Poots till 16 March 2010 to decide to ask for a public inquiry."

However Mr Poots' party colleague Clive McFarland has been busy on his Twitter site drawing attention to Ryanair's track record in pulling out of other airports, citing a variety of different reasons.

Stormont's Transfer Window

Mark Devenport | 14:06 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010


It's the deadline day for football transfers. The rest of the world might be focussing on whether the Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty will move to Blackpool, but at Stormont speculation is rife as to whether broadcaster Eamonn Mallie will make it into the media team due to play MLAs on Thursday 9th September. At the time of writing the Assembly has some of its potential line up pictured on its home page, but the media team has breen shrouded in mystery. However my scouts tell me that the silky skills of the Belfast Telegraph's David Gordon, the BBC's Mark Simpson, PA's David Young, Cool FM's Pete Snodden, the News Letter's Darwin Templeton and the Mirror's Gerry Millar may be on display. The event is intended to mark the opening of the Civil Service Sports Associations's new all weather pitches. But will the politicians play together as a team better than they work together as a coalition? And will ref May McFettridge blow the whistle on any foul play?

A modest proposal

Mark Devenport | 15:32 UK time, Friday, 27 August 2010


Earlier this month I noted the number of people who had suggested to the Treasury that Northern Ireland should be given away as a money saving measure. In today's Independent the columnist Mary Dejevsky follows suit, arguing that wiping out the £9 billion annual subsidy "would make a nice dent in the UK's £900bn national debt within 30 years".

In her smooth prose, Mary manages to make the proposed territorlal handover appear not only logical, but also trouble free. However I think she knows that in reality this wouldn't be the case. Instead I detect a certain amount of tongue in her cheek, although maybe not as much as Jonathan Swift had in his when he he made his rather more alarming "Modest Proposal" back in the eighteenth century.

Witnesses to History

Mark Devenport | 15:31 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010


The Northern Ireland Office line is that no purpose would be served by an inquiry into the Fr Chesney scandal because all the key participants are dead and all the written documentation has already been made available to the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. As we heard on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster this morning, which included an interview with one of the detectives originally tasked with investigating the Claudy bombing, not all those with first hand knowledge of the affair have passed on.

On the government side, William Whitelaw may have died in 1999, but two of his junior ministers, Lord Windlesham and Lord Howell are, so far as I am aware, still alive. Indeed Lord Howell is not only alive, he is in fact a minister in the current government, serving in the Foreign Office. The minister was on holiday when the Claudy report was published.

Given that he had responsibility in 1972 for Finance, Commerce and Agriculture Lord Howell may have had no knowledge of his boss's dealings with the Catholic church over Fr. Chesney. However I can't say this for sure as when my colleague Julian O'Neill put in a bid for a BBC interview with the minister about the matter the FCO turned it down without any explanation.

Our Political Exports

Mark Devenport | 14:16 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010


Picking up from the recent inconclusive Australian election, and the central role played by Welsh born Julia Gillard, Agenda NI has been writing about Margaret Guilfoyle, a Belfast born woman who made her mark on Australian politics back in the 1970s and 80s.

This got me thinking about how many other politicians Northern Ireland has exported. In the current parliament there's the Bournemouth Conservative MP Conor Burns, born at the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road. The former Conservative Minister Lord Mawhinney also used to talk about his boyhood days growing up near Stormont. Labour has Kate Hoey, of course, and the Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods.

Then there's politicians like the SDLP's Austin Currie and Alliance's John Cushnahan who travelled south of the border to join Fine Gael.

Any other political exports anyone can recall? And any as far flung as Margaret Guilfoyle?

War and Peace Games

Mark Devenport | 11:38 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010


Listening to the discussion on this morning's Nolan show about the latest controversy regarding the Medal of Honor game on the Afghan war, I wondered whether it's inevitable that games which reward players who kill as many people as possible will always have a wider appeal than games which encourage a more humanitarian attitude.

Last year there was some minor controversy over the Far Cry 2 game, described as a "first person shooter" which featured an ex IRA prisoner as one of its cast of characters.

I'm pretty naive when it comes to computer games, but back in the days when I used to play board games like Diplomacy, the attraction was just as much in the business of negotiating alliances as in achieving world domination.

So could our local political process spawn a computer equivalent which, instead of encouraging players to wipe out their opponents, stresses the value of finding go betweens, or avoiding confrontation? Maybe it's too much to ask, but I did find the website for the Peacemaker game which tries to do something similar in a Middle Eastern context. Sadly I imagine it will remain the exception which proves the "first person shooter" rule.

Same Hymn Sheet

Mark Devenport | 15:49 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010


I spent today at Antrim Civic Centre where Tom Elliott launched his campaign to succeed Sir Reg Empey as Ulster Unionist leader. Last time I was at the Civic Centre Sir Reg met the Rangers and England striker Mark Hately there, as part of his ill fated attempt to take South Antrim. So not a very good omen. That said, Tom Elliott's launch was a well organised affair, attended by an impressive range of party figures, including the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, the Deputy Leader Danny Kennedy and the MEP Jim Nicholson. This breadth of support establishes him as the front runner, ahead of Basil McCrea who so far only as his close colleague John McAllister to point to as a standard bearer.

Mr Elliott's two most striking points were his rejection of a single unionist party ("not in my lifetime") and his dumping of the UCUNF Conservative link ("we must not enter an election flying any colours other than our own"). On the surface that would appear to mean both Mr Elliott and Mr McCrea are singing off the same hymn sheet. However the McCrea camp claim that the Elliott team are late converts to their position, given the Fermanagh MLA's association with Rodney Connor's unity candidacy and his participation in the Hatfield House talks.

Mr Elliott said the Conservative government had an obligation to support the UUP in its efforts to undo the aspect of the St. Andrews Agreement which could see Martin McGuinness returned as First MInister should Sinn Fein become the biggest Assembly party next year. Should that issue dominate next year's Stormont elections the UUP might find its vote squeezed still further. However given Mr Elliott would dump the UCUNF link just how obliged will Owen Paterson feel to rewrite the rules?

By contrast, John McAllister expressed scepticism about the chances of any revision of the rules prior to next year's election. Instead, he argued, the UUP must stand on its own merits and, as democrats, accept the result, even if that meant Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.

A Long Way To Tipperary?

Mark Devenport | 11:41 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Today's Police Ombudsman report confirms the suspicions raised back in 2002 that the NIO under Willie Whitelaw colluded with the Catholic church to get Fr James Chesney moved out of Northern Ireland, when the police should have arrested the priest and put to him their suspicions about his involvement in the Claudy atrocity. The deficiency in the report is obvious - the Ombudsman's office was created to bring the police to account but the Claudy cover up requires a process which can bring the government to account.

There's speculation that Willie Whitelaw thought the arrest and charging of a Catholic priest at the time might prove just too incendiary, provoking retaliatory attacks on other clerics. Equally it's possible that the wily Northern Ireland Secretary decided that in the grander scheme of things it was better to have the Catholic church hierarchy indebted to him. But given that the grand old man of Conservatism died back in 1999, we may never know for sure, just as we may never know why the bombers picked a little village like Claudy as the target for their appalling attack.

One quote which leapt out at me was from the then Chief Constable Graham Shillington, who when told the priest had been relocated to Donegal wrote "I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary" as if an extra 200 miles would have made any difference.

With parliament in recess, the release of this report contrasts with the high profile launch of the Bloody Sunday conclusions, accompanied as it was by a prime ministerial apology. More inquiry reports are yet to come - into the murders of the loyalist Billy Wright (expected next month), the lawyer Rosemary Nelson and the Portadown Catholic Robert Hamill. But there's still no sign of an over-arching truth recovery process - the NI Victims Commission has suggested cross party talks to agree a structure, but there seems little will amongst the parties to embark on such discussions, let alone to drive towards a timely conclusion.

Monica's Atlantic Iceberg

Mark Devenport | 16:23 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


Martina Purdy will be reporting on Evening Extra on the Human Rights Commissioner Monica McWilliams' decision to step down a year early from her post. Amongst the issues brewing away at the Commission is a decision by the NIO to block extra funding from the US charity Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic is the organisation created by the Irish American "Secret Billionaire" Charles "Chuck" Feeney to put into practice his philosophy of "Giving While Living". It has funded numerous local projects including ones dealing with human rights, ageing, children and youth. However the NIO has now decided the Human Rights Commission shouldn't be taking money outside its remit. In addition the NIO is asking the Commission to take a 25% cut in its government funding.

Is it a coincidence that Atlantic has strongly backed those who support the creation of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, first canvassed in the Good Friday Agreement, whilst the Conservatives have always been sceptical of this objective preferring to deal with Northern Ireland under the umbrella of a UK wide bill?

Conor's Water Endurance Test

Mark Devenport | 16:09 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


Whilst the hacks and the bloggers were mounting a marathon trail through his Regional Development department's e-mails, the minister himself was engaging in a different kind of endurance event.

Conor Murphy was back at his desk today, surveying the turmoil at Northern Ireland Water, after returning from a trip to Germany. He'd travelled to Wiesbaden near Frankfurt to take part in a triathlon as part of a Newry team. But after hurting his leg Mr Murphy was only able to complete the swimming stage. That's 1.8 miles in length, as if the minister hadn't had enough water to deal with recently.

Same Old Song

Mark Devenport | 11:52 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


The Irish News has bookended it's 3 page interview with a spokesman for Oglaigh na hEireann with an impressive array of civic leaders calling for all violence to stop and columnists expressing understandable anger and contempt for those prepared to ignore the wishes of the people on either side of the border.

Nevertheless what stands out is the cold clinical line of argument of the ONH spokesman, which mirrors the justifications given down the decades by previous generations of republicans. Who needs popular support from the fickle public if they know in their hearts that they, and only they, are carrying the true flame of the leaders of the Easter Rising?

The ONH spokesman argues that Sinn Fein "were badly outmanoeuvred during the creation of the (Good Friday) deal". The talks they envisage can have only one outcome - British withdrawal. So all the hard work of Messrs Hume, Adams et al in focussing on people not territory and brokering workable compromises gets thrown away in favour of maiming Catholic police officers and ordering taxi drivers to deliver proxy bombs (a tactic for which the ONH apologises as an unfortunate necessity).

The striking aspect to this group so far has been their lack of political apologists. The Irish News interview confirms this is deliberate: "ONH will not be going down the political party/army module because it has failed. One always compromises the other...As for the ballot box/armalite strategy well it fell on its face. So no. We won;t be following that."

ONH clearly believe that staying off the political radar will make them less open to ceasefire overtures from go betweens or infiltration by the security services. All of which poses a depressing but very real challenge to the political and civic leaders intent on keeping society on a more peaceful track.

700 days of failure and 1 day of success

Mark Devenport | 17:07 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010


That's how the former talks chairman, George Mitchell, described his time at Castle Buildings at Stormont when he announced a fresh round of direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Senator Mitchell's point was the need for patience. He pointed out that his efforts had often been branded a failure during his twenty two months in Northern Ireland.

When the Middle East talks get going on September 2nd it will be fascinating to see whether the facilitators continue to draw on the NI example.

Locally rather lower level exchanges have been on the agenda, as the Secretary of State Owen Paterson did his best play a straight bat to the BBC's Today programme on the topic of the alleged contacts between the British and Irish governments and dissident republicans. Mr Paterson ruled out "meaningful talks, serious discussions, real negotiations" with those engaged in violence. However he was altogether more coy when questioned about any "contacts" with such groups, responding that he wouldn't be drawn on "operational matters".

That last statement will only add credibility to Martin McGuinness's claim that talks with the dissidents have been continuing for some time. The DUP's Gregory Campbell has demanded "straight answers". Alliance's Stephen Farry argues that any contacts must be limited: "engagement can play a role in terms of the state or intermediaries working with communities to prevent or reverse in particular vulnerable young people getting swept into a life of violence. At a broader level, efforts to explore means by which groups can end their violence could be beneficial, but again this cannot be characterised as or become negotiations with mutual trade-offs."

Over in the latest edition of the Spectator Magazine Jenny McCartney isn't impressed by those who believe the only way to deal with terrorism is to enter talks. She chides Tony Blair's former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell for backing NI style negotiations with the Taliban, continuing "one is tempted to think that if Beelzebub were to make an impromptu appearance on earth, the first thing he would see would be Jonathan Powell walking purposefully towards him, clearing his throat for a chat." She says that Mr Powell's "talking cure" is "based on the notion that the settlement reached in Northern Ireland was an unalloyed triumph. Having grown up in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles, I would not recognise it as such."

British Withdrawal (as a money saving device)

Mark Devenport | 09:15 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010


Back in July the Treasury asked members of the public to submit any ideas they had for saving money and closing the UK budget deficit. Last night the Treasury invited people to vote on the 44,000 proposals they have received so far. Cynics may see this as part of a PR strategy to make the notion of cuts more palatable. The Treasury, however, is promising it will review the ideas to see if any of them can be taken further in the Comprehensive Spending Review in October.

The website makes it clear that the Treasury is not able to act on spending decisions made by the devolved administrations or local authorities. But that disclaimer hasn't stopped the public proposing efficiencies in those areas.

Searching through the ideas using the key words "Northern Ireland" I came across a wide range of proposals from the radical to the specific, from the tongue in cheek to the serious.

Some suggest the UK should "get rid of Northern Ireland" (one idea is that Liverpool could be thrown in for good measure). There's also a fair bit of concern about the Barnett formula with, presumably, English people calling for an equalisation in the per capita government spend across the UK.

On a similar macro level there are calls for the merger of the Northern Ireland Office with the Scottish and Welsh office, a reduction in the number of MPs from the devolved regions and a drastic cut in the number of MLAs at Stormont. Some also support the introduction of regional salaries with lower wages in an area like Northern Ireland than are paid in London.

Some ideas are much more specific - often the ruminations of people working within particular departments or agencies. So we have calls for an improved command structure and IT system at the NI Fire and Rescue Service, the merger of the two driver and vehicle licensing agencies, the DVLA and the DVANI, reductions in the amount of mileage paid to NI Water staff, changes to the management of rivers here, and a call for Newtownabbey council to reduce its spending.

Then there are reactions to items in the news - such as a demand that no money should be given to refurbishing the local soccer, rugby and GAA stadiums or a call for anyone convicted of rioting to have their benefits cut.

Finally I was struck by this one from a 30 year old mother living locally who says "to be honest I have never had any interest in politics as I have grown up in a country where my local government is more concerned about parading down roads or trying to implement the Irish language!! I am concerned however about my future and of that of my 12 week old baby."

After complaining about benefits for teenage mums, foreign wars and public service overtime she continues "I am not political or religious but the Stormont Executive is the biggest waste of time and money", and concludes, with rather dodgy spelling "P.S I sympathise with the new governement. The have inheritated a complete mess!!!"

Water, Water Everywhere

Mark Devenport | 12:14 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Just back from leave and finished deleting 1000 e-mails. Sadly none of them turned out to be internal ones from Northern Ireland Water or the Department of Regional Development. The suspension of the DRD's Permanent Secretary Paul Priestly, pending an investigation into his handling of the events which led to the removal of most of the non executive directors from Northern Ireland Water, is unprecedented.

The TUV leader Jim Allister reckons the DRD minister Conor Murphy is trying to make Mr Priestly a "scapegoat" for his own failings. Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey disagrees - he has put out a statement commending his party colleague for acting "promptly and robustly". But Mr Maskey is the Chair of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee, which may continue to play a role in enquiring into these events. Although he issued his statement as an individual MLA, other politicians may wonder whether he should have appeared to make his mind up at this stage.

No one doubts the need to ensure public money is spent properly - the lack of tendering for £28 million in public contracts is the central issue underpinning this controversy. But the e-mails which have come to light recently raise questions about the department's actions in pinning the blame on the non executive directors, and about the Permanent Secretary's dealings with the independent probe into Northern Ireland Water's actions. There are also further questions about Mr Priestly's handling of the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry into the affair.

This should all make for some sharp exchanges when Conor Murphy meets his departmental committee at Stormont later this month.

Whilst the TUV may be demanding Conor Murphy's head, a ministerial resignation seems highly unlikely - not least because under the Stormont system the only person who can remove a minister is the party's nominating officer. Given that Gerry Adams has stood by Caitriona Ruane throughout all the controversy over her handing of the Education Department it's hard to envisage him rushing to replace Mr Murphy at the DRD.

What's in a word?

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 15:24 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010


I was speaking to an official from the Department of Finance the other day and asked about the October deadline for the Comprehensive Spending Review. This is where the government sets out its spending plans from 2011 to 2015. But I was quickly corrected. The smiling official pointed out that one mustn't call it the "Comprehensive Spending Review" anymore. HM Treasury insists it's now known as the "Spending Review." Now why don't they like the word "comprehensive" anymore?

Lurgan. Lest we forget

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 12:04 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010


I'm off to Lurgan, grateful that it's a routine meeting rather than to cover the aftermath of a bomb.

It was Monday August 17th 12 years ago that news of the Omagh bomb was still unfolding. I woke up that Monday to go into the Belfast Telegraph to write what I had witnessed hours after the bomb went off that Saturday. The wreckage, the remains of a twisted pram, a child's teddy lying in rubble, the blood on the floor of the local hospital, the relatives who sat in Omagh Leisure centre, drinking tea, listening to the mounting death toll, waiting for news. I sat with Kevin Skelton in that hall, his forehead marked with blood. His wife Philomena had taken the girls into Kells for new school clothes and he had stepped out for a minute. I think we both knew his wife was dead. It was something he had said, but then seemed to deny. We made small talk through the grim hours. I was doing my job. But I felt like a ghoul.

There was a girl called Jolene. She was missing. She didn't make it. Jolene Marlowe was 17. I think I heard the news of her death as I got ready for work that Monday.

The final death toll for Omagh was 29 people, plus two unborn children. Others survived but were scarred for life.

Another 12 year old was caught up in the Lurgan bomb on Saturday. This morning's NewsLetter carries an interview with Demi Maguire's father Frankie, who said: "Nobody wants to go back to them days, do they?"

Who do you believe?

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 18:15 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010


Martin McGuinness has thrown a verbal grenade into the political world before he departs for his August holidays. He told Radio Ulster that the two governments are engaged in secret talks with dissident republicans. (Apologies for earlier error - was writing this while editing TV package...)

Black propaganda says Republican Sinn Fein.

It wasn't exactly a "Who us?" reply from London and Dublin. But both are in agreement there can be no meaningful talks with those who aren't committed to peaceful means to achieve their aims.

The DUP's Gregory Campbell says he wouldn't be surprised but wants evidence.

Whatever the truth, the Deputy First Minister who was engaged in secret talks during his years in the IRA, has given dissidents something to think about. What will the rank and file dissidents make of his claims? And who will they choose to believe?

More Byron

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 12:42 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010


More information on the new force for Ulster Politics, the Byron Party arrived today. One side of a card is bordered by the Union flag with the words "There's no mandate for cuts. There is another way. You decide" and the other side of the card is bordered with the Irish Tricolour. It carries the words: "We favour an Anglo-Irish initiative and see where it leads."

Attached is correspondence to the Byron party's "Connell" from the Prison Servie on the issue of prisoners at Maghaberry. The party was seeking to meet with the prisoners to arrange a compromise. But the prison service suggested the Byron party await the outcome of on-going discussions.

The party says it has been going for 30 years and its number one priority is a United Ireland to be achieved under the terms of the GFA.

Other views: Segregration remains an obstacle to peace; the UDA is in turmoi and "could spoil the peace process" on top of "being an extra burden to the PSNI."

There are also views on the Bible, and questions: where have all the good men (and women) have gone.

A new force in Ulster Politics

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 16:17 UK time, Tuesday, 10 August 2010


No. It's not another blog on the Ulster Unionist Party. Rather, another new party altogether.Today's Belfast Telegraph's classified advertisements, below "missing relatives" and beside cinema listings, carries the information:

"A new political Party for Ulster, the Byron Party, based in London intends to take part in the political life of the province owing to the impasse in politics here. Founder and chairman, Connell." It comes with a telephone number.

On Second Thought...

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 11:47 UK time, Tuesday, 10 August 2010


The Ulster Unionist Robert Oliver has called me to say, that after some consideration, he's going to back Tom Elliott in the leadership contest. This follows my blog yesterday that he was still making up his mind.

The Third Man

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 10:53 UK time, Monday, 9 August 2010


Now that the UUP leader has formally resigned, the leadership contest has officially starteds still looking like a two-horse race between Tom Elliott, Fermanagh South Tyrone, MLA, and Basil McCrea, Lagan Valley MLA, who is expected to enter the race soon. But there's still speculation about a "third man." Portadown Orangeman, Robert Oliver, has this morning dismissed speculation that he may enter the race. He said he would be considering the policies of the candidates before deciding who he's backing. But Mr Oliver has confirmed he's entering the assembly selection race for Upper Bann, a constituency he chairs. UUP Cllr Joanne Dobson, and former UCUNFcandidate Harry Hamilton are also seeking the nomination. But the sitting MLAs George Savage and Samuel Gardiner are intent on defending their positions and standing again. That race is set for September 8.

Good-bye Sir Reg, hello whooooooooooo?

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 6 August 2010


With Reg Empey now set to formally resign as UUP leader, and a contest pencilled in for September 24th, the rumour mill is going into over-drive about who might stand. (Update at 1.45pm. Latest from UUP is that the 22nd of September is now more likely.)

And in the interests of killing off wild speculation, I've been on the phone to some of the names being bandied about.

First of all, the facts. So far only Tom Elliott, the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA, has declared. Basil McCrea, MLA for Lagan Valley, is expected to enter the race in the next few weeks. It's thought nominations close on September 3rd.

These two are quite a contrast for members. Mr Elliott hails from the Orange, traditional wing of the UUP while is Mr McCrea would be viewed as a liberal moderniser.

Mr Elliott is considered to be the favourite but no one is quite sure how Mr McCrea might do in a one-person one-vote contest. And even his detractors say he shouldn't be under-estimated.

There are thought to be around 2,000 members eligible to vote, but expect a row over voting. There are whispers that questions are being asked about membership forms. How many of these UUP members have actually filled in forms? Or is it that they have simply given a donation and been put down as members? Is a membership card that carries no picture enough to get you a ballot?

It's also been mentioned to me that there is much hand-wringing going on about what might happen if either Mr McCrea or Mr Elliott get the leadership. Will it split the party. Can either of these MLas truly unite the party? Can anybody? The DUP have issued a statement saying that Sir Reg's departure is an opportunity for unionist unity.

Now to the speculation about other candidates. Firstly, Jim Nicholson's name has been mentioned Has he been approached? "First I have heard of it," the UUP MEP told me this morning. He quickly added that he is on record as saying that he does not believe it is possible to lead the party from Europe.

Secondly, Alan McFarland, the North Down MLA who quit the UUP earlier this year over the link-up with the Conservatives. Could Mr McFarland come back and then seize the leadership? I spoke to him too. He has no interest in returning to the UUP never mind seeking to lead it.

Thirdly, Tim Lemon, the member who stood against David Campbell for chairmanship of the party. I haven't spoken him, but it is understood from one-source that he is not intending to stand.

So there you have it.

And if that's not enough for the UUP to worry about, MLAs are facing selection contests in the coming weeks.

Upset, bemused, frustrated....

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 18:34 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010


Upset, bemused, frustrated? Well try confused!

There's been another twist in the on-going saga involving Northern Ireland Water, the Department of Regional Development and the assembly's Public Accounts Committee.

The Department has been answering questions today about a leaked e-mail, written by its permanent secretary, Paul Priestly, shortly after he appeared at last month's PAC's hearing into NIW. The Department is responsible for the go-co and the PAC was probing the sacking of four company directors after it emerged contracts were handed out without competition.

Last month's PAC hearing was controversial enough, not least because Peter Dixon, chief executive of Phoenix Gas, was upset about questions some MLAs had asked about his role. Mr Dixon was a member of an Independent Review Team brought into probe the contracts problem. The team's report led to four NIW executive being sacked. Mr Dixon wasn't before the committee, but subsequently complained that the line of questioning at the committee by three MLAs was disgraceful. He felt that some MLAs had sought to insinuate that some members of the review team weren't entirely independent or impartial. The complaint was in a letter leaked to the BBC. Mr Dixon has since withdrawn the complaint.

Now the permanent secretary's e-mail on the issue has been leaked to the Slugger O'Toole website. Paul Priestly who had answered questions at committee, subsequently wrote to the Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, informing him that another member of the review team, Jackie Henry had been in touch with him. She was "less upset" than Mr Dixon but "bemused and frustrated."

In the email, Mr Priestly suggests that Mrs Henry is seeking to meet the Auditor along with other review team members. He refers to "accusations and insinuations" made at the PAC. And adds that Mrs Henry wanted to hear how the Northern Ireland Audit Office was going to deal with the matter IN ASSISTING THE PAC IN COMING UP WITH THEIR FINAL REPORT. (The caps are Mr Priestly's - a mistake, we're told.)


Now, Mr Dallat, a PAC member, responsible for some robust questioning, was not impressed with this e-mail. In his own statement, he's criticised Mr Priestly - accusing him of interfering in what is meant to be an independent process.

The Department says Mr Priestly "did not make recommendations on behalf of the Independent Review Team. and that "the Permanent Secretary was not suggesting any course of action in the investigation."

Mr Dallat says an independent inquiry is now needed to clear up all the controversy surrounding NIW.

The PAC's final report is due out in the autumn.

As for the minister, Conor Murphy, he's not commenting.

Changed Times

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 12:35 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010


Sixteen years after the IRA ceasefire, Ian Paisley Junior can go to west Belfast and "Talk Back" without too much controversy. The most biting exchange of last evening's debate was possibly one between the DUP MP and a member of the audience. The man wanted to know why there were hot-house negotiations to deliver policing and justice devolution but none on what he regarded as far more critical: education.

At one point, Mr Paisley Jnr said he wasn't taking any lectures - while the inquisitor suggested he was quick to give them.

The DUP MP and Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff didn't agree on everything but it was awfully good natured.

As for Fintan O'Toole, one of Sinn Fein's sharpest Dublin-based critics, even he suggested the party now had the chance to form a left-wing coalition in the Republic. And the commentator hit out at what he said was the hypocrisy coming from down south, where the message had been Sinn Fein must be in government in Northern Ireland but not in Dublin.

At one point, I could see the DUP press officer signalling to Mr Paisley Junior when the Alliance MP Naomi Long was explaining her victory in East Belfast. He seemed to want the DUP to hit back hard, as Ms Long was saying her win at Westminster was down to a positive campaign.

But even that didn't lead to a spat.

As for Mr Paisley Junior, he left having signed one or two autographs.

Junior goes west

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 18:31 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010


It's that time of year again, when West Belfast Talks Back. And this year's line up includes a guest that the Feile has been trying woo west for years. Ian Paisley Junior is on tonight's panel, along with the Alliance's Naomi Long, Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff and commentator Fintan O'Toole.

So, I'm off now to cover the debate. Let's hope it's a lively event. I recall the year that the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson attended as a guest back in 2004. There was a queue out the door. Will Junior prove as popular a draw?

Fancy meeting you here...

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010


Visitors to Belfast City Hall this afternoon saw some unusual sights. Not only was the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in one corner, ready to meet a loyalist parades group, in the other, but a former Tory minister was spotted on the staircase. It seems Edwina Currie was getting a tour of the historic building. With all that intrigue, perhaps she'll set her next novel here.

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