BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for September 2010

Good Relations, Equality, Chickens and Eggs

Mark Devenport | 16:51 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Since I've been in London covering the talks at the Treasury, I haven't been across the detail of today's Assembly motion on equality and good relations. But I've seen some of the speeches e-mailed out by the parties, and they reveal the philosophical distinctions which the politicians make around these topics, some of which can be frankly a bit baffling to the layman.

You can't have a chicken without an egg, but can you have equality without good relations? In her contribution Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson makes no bones about regarding equality as pre-eminent. She says "good relations can only be built on Equality. Equality cannot and should not be built on good relations". She goes on "If equality and good relations have equal status - as stated in the SDLP motion - is the SDLP saying that even though objective needs dictates that Catholics meet all the criteria that housing for Catholics should be blocked. This is the case in certain areas of the North." And concludes "equality is necessary, good relations are desirable. Equality is the primary duty and I find it disappointing - but not surprising - that the SDLP don't seem to recognise that."

The SDLP's Margaret Ritchie seemed less philosophical in her arguments. She bluntly stated that the recent draft Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy read "like a text produced by robots, devoid of empathy or intuition." Her reasoning was that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein really cared about good relations, their strategy "envisions a future where we still have two separate communities. The height of its ambition is to have two communities still separate, still unreconciled, but generally at peace. Not attacking or abusing each other." She argued that the parties should aim higher, but "the DUP and Sinn Fein - do not actually believe in Sharing. Honestly, they don't actually want a shared Future. They prefer the traditional division which affords them power in their own single identity communities. Power and control before all else. Carve-up before sharing."

In his maiden speech, the Alliance's Chris Lyttle was more enthusiastic about the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy as a step in the right direction. But he too expressed concern about the "danger of a 'shared out future' rather than the 'shared future' this region needs and deserves."

And on the chicken/egg, equality/good relations conundrum, he continued that "Alliance is also wary of a hierarchy between equality and good relations. This document must recognise that there can be no sustainable equality in this region without a sense of solidarity, interdependence and sharing. Equality arguments should not be used to undermine good relations and vice versa."

At the time of writing I haven't seen any of the unionist contributions to the debate in my in box. My Spam Filter has obviously not been equality proofed in line with Section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

George - our flexible friend

Mark Devenport | 15:10 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


They might have been at loggerheads about how to deal with the cuts in the run up to today's meeting, but as they arrived at the Treasury the First and Deputy First looked like a team, striding in purposefully together rather than travelling seperately.

After about three quarters of an hour inside George Osborne's HQ, Messrs Robinson and McGuinness emerged claiming they'd outlined Northern Ireland's "special case". This revolved around the government needing to stand by committments made at St. Andrews, especially regarding capital spending. Mr Robinson also reiterated the need for Stormont to be able to dip into the Treasury reserve should policing and justice require (code for dealing with any upsurge in violence).

Martin McGuinness said the Chancellor had used the word "flexibility" and the First and Deputy First now hope he would prove flexible. Suggestions include phasing the projected half a billion pound cut to the local capital budget so as to soften the blow to the construction industry.

Owen Paterson attended the meeting. On his way out I asked how much bargaining room the Treasury had over the projected £2 billion cut to the Stormont budget over the next four years. At first Mr Paterson responded that he didn't know where the figure was coming from. When I pointed out that the Stormont Finance Department has gone public with the estimate, the Secretary of State argued that until the allocations for Whitehall departments like Health and Education have been agreed it remains impossible to do the maths, so all the Stormont estimates remain so much guesswork.

Mr Paterson is now heading to the USA for a preparatory visit ahead of Hillary Clinton's October 19th Investment conference. Before he got in his car to the airport he confirmed his plans to press ahead immediately with the re-appointment of the Parades Commission.

London was overcast, but the Treasury building still looked imposing. During the Second World War, Churchill's Cabinet operated out of the reinforced basement in order to withstand bombing raids. After October 20th, will Chancellor Osborne have to take up residence in the bunker as protection from the wrath of the public?

P.S. When I wrote that headline I couldn't remember where the phrase about "your flexible friend" came from. Then my cameraman reminded me it was an advert for the now defunct Access credit card. The "flexible friend" was taken over by Mastercard in the 1990s.

Parades Bill Hits Pothole

Mark Devenport | 17:15 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Given that it was the DUP's sine qua non back in the cold days of the Hillsborough agreement, the Parades Bill has had a stormy passage since then. First opposition from trade unions and other concerned parties secured major changes to the proposed restrictions on public protests. Now the reluctance of the Orange Order to back the bill, has led to the DUP refusing to push the legislation forward. Peter Robinson is dissapointed, but argues there is no point replacing the Parades Commision, which the Order won't engage with, with a new body they won't support.

So it looks like the Parades Commission will roll over for another year. The Commission was never very impressed by the plans for its replacement. As can be seen in its response to the ill fated bill, the Commission claimed to have "no selfish interest in its own perpetuation". But it expressed concern that the planned new structures had "an increased potential for independence to be compromised and for decisions to be influenced by political or partisan considerations."

Don't mention the MI5 war

Mark Devenport | 15:58 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


I'm off to London tomorrow for the First and Deputy First Ministers' meeting with the Chancellor George Osborne. Although they wlll no doubt present a united front, there's been a distinct contrast between their two parties in the run up to the discussion.

First there's the longstanding difference between Sammy Wilson making contingency plans for the cuts which Sinn Fein say should be resisted.

Then there's the question of dissident republicans and last week's MI5 warning. Sinn Fein sources are annoyed about reports (including the BBC's) that the MI5 alert about possible attacks on Great Britain might feature in the discussion. Their point is that the meeting has been arranged for a month, long before the MI5 warning, which Martin McGuinness implied was more about the Security Service securing its own budget.

Sinn Fein, for obvious historical reasons, would never want to be seen as praying MI5 in aid, even if it is to fend off cuts. However the First Minister Peter Robinson feels no such constraint. On Friday he was quick to make the point that the MI5 warning underlined the need for adequate resourcing for security. He repeated that message during question time this afternoon when he said the Treasury needed to recognise the best way to stop dissident actions taking place in Great Britain was to stop them in Northern Ireland.

Maybe they aren't that far apart really. Both could argue that "there is no doubt that the cuts with which we are being threatened can be extremely damaging, particularly for a society and a community emerging from a conflict that has lasted some three decades." That would get the security sub-text over without mentioning either the dissidents or MI5. Not my words - the quote comes from Martin McGuinness speaking at a Sinn Fein away day at Mullaghbawn on September 10th.

P.S. During First Minister's questions, Alliance's Stephen Farry had a query about the OFMDFM's Sexual Orientation Strategy. Peter Robinson left it to his junior minister Robin Newton to launch into a lengthy explanation of how the office was handling LGBT issues. All these acronyms nearly had me reaching for a stiff G&T. But Martina Anderson cut through the alphabet soup when she asked Minister Newton bluntly whether he would himself attend a gay pride event or intended to follow the Tom Elliott example.

The East Belfast MLA never gave her a straight answer. But he did say he had met people from the LGBT sector at various gatherings, recognised government needed to deal with them and expressed some sympathy with the new Ulster Unionist leader arguing that his own party hadn't given him so much as a one day honeymoon period.

Oustide the chamber Ms Anderson accused the DUP of stalling on the sexial orientation strategy saying that Mr Newton's comment that it wouldn't be put in place until 2012 is a sign that the DUP is "going into election mode."

More woes for Health Minister

Mark Devenport | 13:13 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010


Although he got his chosen candidate selected as UUP leader, this hasn't been the best week for Michael McGimpsey. Yesterday (as mentioned earlier) he got a rough ride from the Health and Justice Committees over Donagh and Doctors B and C. He is due to make a statement about his Donagh mix up to the Assembly next week.

Now, on top of all that, the Newtownards Chronicle has run a story about the Minister holding directorships in two companies which rent properties to the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Newtownards. On my reading there doesn't seem any issue about non- decaration of interests, as in the Stormont Register of Interests Mr McGimpsey declares his directorships.

However it's a tad embarrassing that staff working in one of the buildings, a Health and Care Centre at 39 Regent Street, Newtownards, are quoted as complaining about inadequate standards and a lack of heating - in a building rented out by a company of which the relevant minister is a director (that said, the register of interests describes this as an "unremunerated" post).

The Chronicle goes on to quote the minister's brother, Chris McGimpsey, who is also a director of the landlords North Down Hotels, as saying the firm was only made aware of a heating problem last week and should have the boiler reinstated in time for "the heating season".

"The heating season". That's a new one on me. It sounds a bit like "the marching season". Now if only the politicians could transfer some of the hot and heavy atmosphere from recent Stormont committee sessions to the chilly quarters in Newtownards everyone might feel a lot more comfortable.

Ulster Unionism.... B.C.

Mark Devenport | 15:10 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


When Tom Elliott uttered his now infamous comments about not attending gay pride events and GAA matches at a Portrush coffee evening, he probably wasn't aware that it amounted to a near declaration of war on Trevor Ringland's "One Small Step" campaign. But given that the small steps Mr Ringland urged people to take included "watching a Gaelic game on TV" or buying either a cricket or Gaelic rule book, Mr Elliott's blithe expression of disinterest in the GAA always had the potential to stir Mr Ringland's ire.

So Mr Ringland's ultimatum to his new party leader on this morning's "Nolan show" should perhaps have been predictable. Mr Ringland gave Mr Elliott a day or two to perform a U turn on his GAA no show policy, or he would quit the party. Rather than declaring the offer of two tickets to next year's All Ireland final as hypothetical (since it depends on an Ulster team reaching the final) Mr Elliott told Talkback he wouldn't engage in tokenism. It sounded like a "no", implying Mr Elliott is resigned to losing Mr Ringland from the party.

Some Elliott backers may regard this as one small loss, given Mr Ringland's failure to prevent the rise and rise of Naomi Long in East Belfast. But the loss of such a high profile community relations activist, and a former rugby international to boot, isn't a great way for the Elliott era to begin. More to the point it has dominated the news reportage at a time when the Elliott team would have much preferred to be discussing their "vision" for the future.

Now back to the headline on this blog. No, it wasn't an attempt to suggest Mr Elliott is taking his party back to the prehistoric era. Instead I was thinking about a spot of bother his health minister, Michael McGimpsey, got into when he mixed up his Doctors B and C during today's joint session of the Health and Justice Committees. The Committees are investigating the case of the return of the McDermott brothers to Donagh after they were found unfit to stand trial for serial abuse.

Mr McGimpsey admitted he'd made an error in failing to admit that a Doctor C worked for the Western Health Trust when answering questions about the Donagh case in the Assembly chamber. MLAs are also examining whether this Doctor C had liaised sufficiently with a Doctor B before giving evidence in a court hearing on the case.

Before we all get confused over our Bs and Cs, the point is that other MLAs (most notably the DUP's Paul Givan) jumped on the confusion to claim that Mr McGimpsey was ill prepared and should stand down. As the minister's new leader, Mr Elliott has the power to remove Mr McGimpsey. He says he hasn't taken any decisions yet on when he will rotate his ministerial team, but it seems safe to assume he won't be listening to the DUP's advice about who he should leave in charge of either the Health or Employment departments.

Late night at the Waterfront

Mark Devenport | 00:52 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


Ahead of last night's Ulster Unionist leadership election some had predicted that the result would depend on the number of buses arriving from Fermanagh to back Tom Elliott. At least five coaches showed up. But as the margin of Mr Elliott's victory by more than 68% to 31% showed, he drew support from many areas outside his home patch.

The Fermanagh MLA said his Lagan Valley rival Basil McCrea had annoyed him, made him laugh and made him cry during their leadership contest. But he has now pledged to unite the liberal and traditional wings of the party, ensuring it will not be a "cold house" for Mr McCrea's liberal supporters.

Although he has dumped the UCUNF experiment, Mr Elliott hasn't written off the notion of some kind of relationship with the Conservatives. Questioned about his remarks on GAA and gay events, he characterised the controversy as a non issue, arguing that local Gaelic clubs in Fermanagh knew he was prepared to work on their behalf. As proof that his mindset doesn't stop at the border, Mr Elliott said he had received a message from a Fine Gael politician wishing him luck, but declined to name him.

The criticism made by Mr Elliott's supporters during the campaign was that Basil McCrea might have a glib tongue and an easy manner on the media, but lacked real substance. The challenge for Mr Elliott will now be to communicate his values and vision in a more compelling manner, not just to the Ulster Unionist grassroots, but to the wider unionist electorate. The battle to succeed Sir Reg Empey may be over, but the Ulster Unionists face a far tougher task in attempting to prove they remain relevant and trying to recover the ground the party has lost to the DUP over the last 12 years.

P.S. With more than a thousand taking part, it was undeniably a good turnout. But one activist reckoned there would be an even bigger attendance when he returns to the Waterfront Hall on December 27th. The activist is the former Upper Bann Westminster candidate, Harry Hamilton, who will return to the Waterfront as "Flash Harry" for a Christmas Queen tribute show.

Victims Commissioners Under Fire

Mark Devenport | 15:52 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


Am I wrong or didn't the DUP and Sinn Fein preside over the appointment of the four Victims Commissioners? I ask the question because the DUP and Sinn Fein representatives on the Stormont OFMDFM committee gave the three remaining Commissioners a real grilling this afternoon.

The DUP's Jimmy Spratt took the Commissioners to task for "trying to reinvent the wheel" by revisiting the Eames Bradley proposals on the past which he argued were "dead in the water". The former police bodyguard expressed the sceptical unionist view that any truth recovery process would be skewed against the state.

But the commissioners didn't get any easier a ride from Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy who accused them of treating the "British Secretary of State" as a neutral person and listing more historic incidents of concern to unionists than ones relevant to nationalists.

The target of this "what about-ery" was the Victims Commission's recent report on the past. The message seemed to be that the Commission should have stuck to preparing practical proposals assessing the current financial needs of victims, rather than revisiting the past. The commissioners claimed they remained on timetable for preparing a "Comprehensive Needs Assessment", but the politicians did not seem satisfied.

At one point the SDLP's Dolores Kelly expressed concern about her fellow Committee members "beating up on" the Commissioners. At another stage the DUP's Trevor Clarke clashed with Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson over her views on IRA members' role during the troubles.

Dolores Kelly had herself just emerged from a different dust up earlier in the Committee meeting, when she raised concerns over the OFMDFM "Removing Barriers to Community Prosperity Fund". Ms Kelly wondered whether the fund intended to tackle deprivation in disadvantaged areas might provide "pension plans for former paramilitaries".

This followed criticism earlier this month by the Social Development Minister Alex Attwood of what he called the "secret" fund. However the First and Deputy First Ministers, who were both giving evidence, rejected this criticism as "bizarre". Peter Robinson hit out at "scare mongering" about the fund and accused Ms Kelly of doing people in the areas concerned a disservice by putting a paramilitary tag upon them.

Dolores Kelly also tackled the First and Deputy First about their failure to greet the Pope in Scotland. Martin McGuinness responded by again saying he would meet the Pope should he visit Ireland, a visit which he predicted could take place by 2012.

Mr Robinson joked that Ms Kelly was annoyed because Pope Benedict had asked to see him and Mr McGuinness, rather than the SDLP MLA. It was a lighter moment during what seemed to be a bad tempered meeting.

Raising the Roof

Mark Devenport | 11:42 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


My eagle eyed colleague Martina Purdy spotted in some recent minutes for the Assembly commission a reference to plans to refurbish the roof of Stormont's Parliament Buildings with proposals for accommodation on the roof.

With a commission source confirming that there has been talk of sticking extra structures on the roof we let our imaginations run riot. Could the authorities be considering completing the original Stormont plan which envisaged an imposing City Hall style dome or cupola? The foundations for the dome were laid but the plan was abandoned on cost grounds back in the 1920s.

Sadly the truth is more prosaic. An official told me they are looking for a solution to the twin problems of a lack of space and a leaky flat roof. Previously some temporary timber framed structures, not visible to the public, had been sited on the Stormont roof and the idea was that a more permanent version might help solve both the water and accommodation problems.

However I'm told that given the current economic climate, and the expected reduction in the budget for capital spending, the notion of new structures on the roof and the talk of extra buildings or extensions are to be "long fingered". So no chance of Stormont getting its "dome of delight".

Wilson versus Wilson on the cuts

Mark Devenport | 18:19 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Sammy Wilson and his officials sat us down in Stormont this afternoon to run through their projections for the October spending review. They are predicting a 10.7% cut in the Executive's revenue and a 31.8% reduction in its capital budget. What does that mean in cash terms? Well at the moment Stormont gets £9.2 billion to spend on recurring revenue costs (salaries etc..) and £1.7 billion on capital projects (roads, houses, sewerage etc..) Over the next four years they expect to lose just over £1.5 billion in revenue and £500 million in capital - or just over £2 billion in total.

Any reductions to welfare benefits - known in the jargon as annually managed expenditure - will fall outside these figures.

There is still a divide between the Finance department approach of making contingency plans for the cuts, and other ministers' line of political resistance. The Finance Minister confirmed that he had asked departments to deliver him savings plans by the end of August, but admitted that the only ones which have complied are four DUP controlled ministries.

So how long will the stand off over dealing with the cuts go on? On October 20th the Finance department expects to get an e-mail from the Treasury providing details of the Northern Ireland block grant around the time the Chancellor sits down. Sammy Wilson would then like to get local ministers to sign off on their own allocations with the aim of achieving a final budget by the end of the year. He argues that those organisations funded by Stormont, be they hospitals, schools or museums, will need early warning of any reductions in their grants in order to enable them to plan for the future.

However it has been in the nature of Stormont politics for the haggling to go on until the last minute, and with the Assembly elections due in May some parties may be tempted by brinkmanship. Mr Wilson himself acknowledged that things could get "fairly messy" and that some departments could well face "massive reductions".

This evening the Green MLA Brian Wilson argued that "we need cuts like a hole in the head". The North Down MLA may share a surname with the Finance Minister but that is where the similarity ends. He went on to say that the public "must not mildly accept the cuts or believe that there is no alternative. We must continue to highlight the alternative and the fact that the policies set out by the government are largely based on ideology rather than economic necessity and are grossly unfair and fall heaviest on the poorest.
We must also try to defer the cuts as long as possible. Unlike the rest of the UK we have not yet emerged from the recession."

Of course the DUP Mr Wilson might remind the Green Mr Wilson of the role his sister party has played south of the border in Dublin's cutting coalition.

Gerry Kelly's Doppelganger

Mark Devenport | 16:11 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


A colleague went to see Sean Crummey's comedy "Stormont" which revolves around a hostage situation involving ministers Gerry Kelly and Michael McGimpsey. Near the knuckle? Not so far as Gerry Kelly was concerned. He was sitting in the audience laughing at his on stage impersonation.

First Among Equals

Mark Devenport | 15:14 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


Although the lower TUV vote in the Westminster election may ultimately make it academic, the debate over whether the DUP or Sinn Fein will be the biggest party is likely to recur in the run up to next year's Assembly election. Under the current rules, of course, the largest party will supply the First Minister, something which has made unionists nervous about the prospect of Martin McGuinness taking the top job.

The Ulster Unionist leadership contender Tom Elliott has called on the Conservatives to change the rules back to the Good Friday Agreement model. Clearly this would be in the interests of the UUP who may face a squeeze on their vote as part of a unionist/republican battle to top the poll. However it looks unlikely that Owen Paterson will have either the parliamentary time or the inclination to make such an amendment.

As the election comes closer, a debate is also underway about who was responsible for the change in the rules which now sees the largest party claiming the First Minister's job as of right, rather than as a result of a cross community vote.

In a Belfast Telegraph article the DUP Deputy leader Nigel Dodds criticised those who he claims are responsible for "a sustained campaign of misinformation concerning the procedure for electing a First Minister". Mr Dodds argues that the Good Friday Agreement said nothing about giving the top job to the largest party from the largest community. Instead he says, correctly, that the First and Deputy First were elected jointly on a cross community basis under the 1998 rules.

The North Belfast MP goes on to argue that the St. Andrews Agreement gave the job to the largest party from the largest designation (a unionist as things stand) but he adds that "regrettably, the Government did not faithfully implement this section of the St Andrews Agreement in the legislation."

This is where his argument gets more contentious. Mr Dodds says the DUP did not support a subsequent change which meant that Stormont's biggest party could lay claim to the job even if they did not hail from the Assembly's biggest designation.

Here Mr Dodds' former colleague, the TUV leader Jim Allister gives a radically different account. In a news release today, Mr Allister claims that not one DUP MP opposed the move in the Commons, while DUP peers voted for the clause in the Lords. Mr Allister argues that a "calculated decision was taken that creating the threat of McGuinness as First Minister would be a useful electoral tool to duress unionists into voting DUP".

Although Mr Dodds is right that the Good Friday Agreement did not specify that unionists would provide the First Minister the clear understanding which emerged from Castle Buildings was that David Trimble would be the First Minister and Seamus Mallon the Deputy First. Should the SDLP have had the inclination to go back on this understanding then the cross community arrangement ensured that the UUP could withhold their votes until satisfied.

Removing the voting requirement spared the DUP's blushes in ensuring their MLAs did not have to actively give their support to Martin McGuinness as Deputy First. But the change then made to the rules in the legislation which followed St. Andrews could one day have unionists blushing for a different reason.

Where Nigel Dodds' Belfast Telegraph article is persuasive is his argument that unionist voters cannot be treated like "sheep that are easily herded into the voting booths based on fear created by scheming politicians". The argument over who might be the future First Minister will undoubtedly feature in media coverage of next year's Assembly election campaign. But will the prospect of Martin McGuinness being the first of two equals spook unionist voters? Or will they make their decisions on issues like health, educations, cuts and the economy?

Papal Bull?

Mark Devenport | 18:11 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010


Should we believe the protestations of the First and Deputy First Ministers that it was "the economy stupid" which took priority over attending the Pope's visit to Scotland? There's no denying that the New York Stock Exchange's decision to create 400 jobs is welcome and important, but their move here was originally announced last October.

However Martin McGuinness's admission that he would have been keen to greet the Pope on a visit to Ireland sets the matter in its political context. Mr McGuinness and Ian Paisley were sometimes said to have an informal understanding that one would meet the Queen, the other the Pope. But what do you do when you get the two of them together?

By not turning up, Mr Robinson was spared being on the inside, whilst Ian Paisley demonstrated on the outside. Mr McGuinness was spared appearing to defer to the Queen.

The fact that both the Pope and the Queen made direct references to the local peace process only made Stormont's absence more conspicuous.

The FM and DFM couldn't put their invitation on e-bay (like an all Ireland GAA ticket), but maybe they should have touted it around the other ministers. The SDLP's Social Development Minister Alex Attwood, for example, might have represented Northern Ireland, but I understand he wasn't approached.

Something fishy

Mark Devenport | 12:11 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


During Northern Ireland questions, Owen Paterson disagreed with his predecessor Shaun Woodward about the potential cost and advisability of devolving the power to lower corporation tax to Stormont. Mr Paterson said noone knew the cost to the local block grant, but some consultants had estimated it at between £100M and £150M. Mr Woodward retorted that the Varney report on the topic commissioned by the last government had determined the cost would be much higher, around £300M.

Irked by the exchange, Mr Paterson's rhetoric turned distinctly fishy. He told Mr Woodward that some of his colleagues had been left the odd "prawn behind the radiator" by their Labour predecessors, but when it came to the Northern Ireland economy and its dependency on the state he had been left "a whole bag full of langoustines behind the radiator". Things must be getting distinctly whiffy inside the Northern Ireland Office.

Defining Collusion

Mark Devenport | 17:00 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


So the Maclean inquiry has found the authorities guilty of negligence not collusion in the murder of Billy Wright (something which the Prison Service had already apologised for 8 years ago). The government may breathe a sigh of relief that the verdict wasn't more damning but Billy Wright's father David isn't happy, quoting supportive MPs who he said regarded the outcome as a whitewash.

One general point which wil have significance for the Nelson and Hamill inquiries later this year is the narrower definition of collusion adopted by the Maclean probe. They have opted for deliberate agreement to commit unlawful acts (i.e a sin of commission) rather than turning a blind eye or deliberately ignoring something (more a sin of ommission). this makes the Maclean definition more restricted than the wide one adopted by Judge Peter Cory and, apparently, the Police Ombudsman and Lord Stevens.

The question now is whether the Nelson and Hamill inquiries will follow the Cory or the Maclean definition of collusion. And if they don't, shouldn't this baseline have been agreed when all the collusion inquiries were first instigated?

Remembering Billy Wright

Mark Devenport | 12:19 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


As we await the outcome of the Billy Wright inquiry, my mind went back to a day in May 1996 which I spent with the Portadown loyalist. The IRA ceasefire had broken down three months previously with the Canary Wharf bombing and BBC Radio 4's "World Tonight" had asked me to compile a report on the fragile state of the loyalist ceasefire. The LVF had yet to be born, but a group calling itself the "Mid Ulster UVF" had admitted involvement in a bomb alert at Dublin airport.

During the interview, Billy Wright never admitted to being part of any splinter group and, on the face of it, he still sounded supportive of David Ervine's approach. However he made a thinly veiled threat to respond to any IRA violence in kind telling me "if it's acceptable for the Dublin government to shore up a movement that's killing British citizens I would imagine that among the ground support of the UVF it would be acceptable to see members of the republican community lose their lives in a similar fashion".

Billy Wright peppered his conversation with overtly religious phrases, wishing me "God bless you, Mark", and when he spoke about politics his voice had an almost evangelical zeal and clarity. Yet I knew full well the intelligence assessments identifying Wright as the multiple killer known as "King Rat" and I had recently talked to a convicted drug dealer who had told me protection had been provided for him by Wright's men.

A few days after the broadcast I got a letter from 27 people who identified themselves as relatives who had "lost loved ones at the hands of Mr Wright and his cohorts". They acknowledged that journalists had a job to do but asked politely if the BBC "could see your way to keep Mr Wright off the airwaves for the time being at any rate".

However events swiftly took their own course. The LVF murdered Michael McGoldrick in July. Billy Wright's split with his UVF colleagues came further into the open when they threatened him to leave Northern Ireland or face execution. That brought the national media to his door. Then followed his defiant rally in Portadown, attended by Willie McCrea, his arrest for threatening a woman, his imprisonment in the Maze, then his murder on 27th December 1997.

Billy Wright's father has legitimate questions about the many failings which allowed the INLA to murder his son inside the Maze jail. But almost whatever this inquiry concludes, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for a victim believed to have so much blood on his hands. The inquiry stemmed from the Weston Park talks of 2001. Nationalists raised concerns about collusion in the murders of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. Unionists responded by highlighting the murders of Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Lady Cecily, two RUC officers Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan and the case of Billy Wright.

The Nelson and Hamill inquiries are due to report in the coming months. The Pat Finucane case is still mired in disagreement between the government and the Finucane family who reject the terms under which they have been offered a probe. The Canadian Judge Peter Cory did not recommend an inquiry into the case of Lord Justice Gibson, whilst it's thought there may be public hearings of the tribunal looking at the Buchanan and Breen murders later this year.

With the benefit of hindsight one may wonder why the Claudy bombing did not feature in the list submitted to Judge Cory for consideration? However the revelations about the talks between William Whitelaw and Cardinal Conway concerning the Claudy bomb suspect Father James Chesney were not made public until December 2002, the year after the Weston Park talks.

Physical Force MLAs

Mark Devenport | 16:42 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


When I was filming a feature on the past for BBC Newsline last week, I visited the Police Museum where I came across a few weird and wonderful exhibits. One was a bullet proof clipboard intended for officers on vehicle checkpoints. In ordinary times they would write driver details down on their clipboard, but should they come under attack, the officer could then hold the clipboard up as a shield. Ingenious, however it would require a very strong wrist, and the clipboard never saw use in action.

One more conventional exhibit was an extending baton emblazoned with the letters "MLA". I wondered whether this had been intended for use against rowdy politicians (it could have come in handy during the "brawl in the hall"). Sadly it turned out to be the initials of the baton manufacturer.

Bleary Eyed BIA

Mark Devenport | 16:31 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


Some Stormont politicians were looking distinctly bleary eyed this morning, after returning from a weekend meeting of the British Irish Association at Oxford. The Association (known by its detractors in years gone by as "Toffs Against Terror") was this year considering the issue of trust. The politicians claimed their weariness wasn't due to late night quaffing at the Oxford college bar, but a fire alarm which forced the delegates all out of their rooms in the middle of the night.

Tom and Basil's contest turns nasty

Mark Devenport | 14:15 UK time, Sunday, 12 September 2010


I've just come off air from Inside Politics, during which we debated the cuts and Claudy. There wasn't a great deal of time left for the UUP leadership contest (although if you missed it Gareth Gordon's Politics Show film on the two contenders is worth checking out). But before the end of the programme, commentator Alex Kane did reflect on the rather personal slugging match it has become.

In an interview with the Impartial Reporter Tom Elliott suggested the UUP whip should be removed from Basil McCrea over his comments regarding Constable Peadar Heffron. Then the News Letter reported that "up to 14" UUP MLAs would quit if Mr McCrea became leader.

Apparently at one point last week the two sides met and agreed to cool it. Where that understanding fits with these most recent reports is unclear. Overnight Basil faced more criticism, not from the right wing of the UUP, but from the Conservative Jeffrey Peel, who accused him of inconsistency over the UCUNF link. Mr Peel claimed that in the past Mr McCrea had said he "may even defect to the Conservatives if the UUP was not prepared to do the deal". Mr McCrea says Mr Peel's version of any discussions back in 2008 is inaccurate and he denies offering to defect to the Tories.

Messing About With Oaths

Mark Devenport | 17:57 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010


I'm generally opposed to swearing, but this week the Secretary of State implied that if Sinn Fein MPs came up with some fresh words for an oath they might swear before taking their seats he'd be happy to consider it. This ran contrary to a recent written answer from the Deputy Leader of the Commons, David Heath MP to the DUP's Ian Paisley Junior. Mr Heath was asked about possible revisions to the parliamentary oath and affirmation. He replied that there were no plans to change the current requirements.

All of which could be largely academic. When a colleague asked Gerry Adams earlier today if he'd take up Owen Paterson's offer to write his own oath, he responded with fits of laughter and a query as to whether the question was a "spoof". Martin McGuinness responded that "our allegiance is to Ireland" and Gerry Adams said it showed how much education Mr Paterson needs about politics here. So it's not the oath, but the principle, according to republicans.

Inside Politics returns this weekend after its summer break. My colleague Stephen Walker will provide his thoughts on the oath and we shall have a debate on the forthcoming cuts between a local Conservative and a trade union leader. That's on Sunday on BBC Radio Ulster after the news at 1pm.

Everybody needs a Gerry

Mark Devenport | 18:40 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


Congratulations to my colleagues in the media who I gather beat the MLAs on penalties in their football match this afternoon. I hear Mark Simpson was a star in goal. No doubt after carefully studying videos of my silky skills, the media team assigned me to the positions of either left back in the changing room or right back behind the goal line, so I can't provide you with a blow by blow account.

The nearest I got was listening to the match commentary floating across the trees towards Stormont Castle as I prepared for my interview this afternoon with Martin McGuinness. We had to close the windows to ensure the roar of the commentator did not interrupt proceedings, which made our encounter slightly surreal.

I've been working for a few days on a piece on dealing with the past, which ran out on tonight's BBC Newsline. Lord Eames told me that in the light of the current economic recession his group would probably have rethought its proposal for a £170 million legacy Commission. But he defended the idea of an over arching commission which could replace the current piecemeal inquiries.

Over the summer the Victims Commission suggested six months of round table talks between the parties to try to reach consensus on the past. However there's room for scepticism about whether such a consensus will ever be achieved.

The Northern Ireland Office is going to wait for the outcome of next week's Billy Wright inquiries and the Hamill and Nelson inquiries before making any fresh proposals. Watching yesterday's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, it was clear that Owen Paterson was impressed by the Police Historical Enquiries Team, but not convinced by providing a big brush solution. So it may be that his suggestions will be incremental, building on what already exists. What's certain is that in the current economic climate cost will be a major factor in any proposals.

Finally, why does everybody need a Gerry? Don't ask me, ask the former US Envoy Mitchell Reiss. In his new book "Negotiating With Evil" Dr Reiss pronounces that "every government facing a terrorist or insurgent threat needs a Gerry Adams."

The split on cuts

Mark Devenport | 17:45 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


So how fundamental is the division between the Stormont parties over the forthcoming cuts? On the face of it Sinn Fein's approach - resisting British imposed cuts - is directly opposed to the DUP's talk of making contingency plans. Stormont sources say Sinn Fein ministers aren't cooperating with the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's scoping exercise about where savings could be made. The DUP's Peter Weir has accused Sinn Fein of "economic illiteracy" and burying its head in the sand. But Sinn Fein retort that the DUP has naively given away Stormont's bargaining position. Drawing on their experience of negotiating during the peace process, republicans say now is the time for a major negotiation with the Treasury drawing in the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh administrations.

That said, DUP sources reckon there's a difference between the public line being pushed in Sinn Fein's news releases and what they are hearing in private from their counterparts in the Executive. Martin McGuinness appeared to have softened his party's message when he appeared alongside Peter Robinson at the opening of a Coca Cola factory in Lisburn.

The SDLP's Alex Attwood is doubtful whether the DUP and Sinn Fein will reach an agreed response to the Whitehall spending cuts prior to the Assembly election due in May. If that is the case then this debate could shape next year's campaign.

In good form

Mark Devenport | 22:09 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


That's how Peter Robinson described his family when I inquired about the latest news of his wife Iris. There has been speculation that the First Minister might stand aside after the Washington Investment Conference planned for October 19th, but talking to me this afternoon Mr Robinson brushed that aside, insisting that he will continue, leading his party into the Assembly election in May next year.

Someone who doesn't look like he will be fighting that election is the UUP's David McClarty, not picked by the party's East Londonderry election committee. As a former Chief Whip and current Deputy Speaker Mr McClarty is a high profile figure at Stormont, undoubtedly one of his party's better performers. So this decision was a shock. The party has made the point that the UUP Executive has yet to ratify the move, but in the immediate aftermath of the vote Mr McClarty himself seemed to think the die was cast.

Talking of elections, the Lord Chief Justice seems far from impressed that 6 votes in question in the disputed Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster election have not been set aside for the court to scrutinise. Rodney Connor's legal challenge to Michelle Gildernew's narrow victory is due to start on Monday next week.

Bliar, Bliar!

Mark Devenport | 17:28 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


I've just finished editing BBC Newsline 6.30's version of my Tony Blair interview. The former Prime Minister defended his "stretching the truth" back in 2006 as a commonsense tactic to keep the peace process on track. He dismissed criticism that this meant the St. Andrew's Agreement was built on lies as "exaggerated" and felt most people would have backed him in the circumstances.

In truth the DUP and Sinn Fein can hardly have expected HMG to pass on all messages between them in a completely unvarnished form. The UK government was not a disinterested observer at the time. Rather it was straining every sinew to move the process towards a satisfactory conclusion. At the same time was Mr Blair wise to be frank? What will the Palestinians and Israelis think if he were in the future to assure them of each others' bona fides?

Still the "stretching the truth" story got me thinking about what the peace process would have looked like if our politicians had been struck by the truth bug which hit Jim Carrey in the film Liar, Liar (incidentally the comedy was released in 1997 - the year Mr Blair entered Downing Street).

Would we have had Sinn Fein leaders saying "I know it looks bad me carrying this tricolour covered coffin, but I have no choice if I am going to throw out every republican shibboleth in a few months' time"? Or Ian Paisley pronouncing "never, never never until we top the poll"? Or the British and Irish governments admitting that they really regarded the local statesmen they hosted in a series of stately homes as "rude, ungrateful backwoodsmen"?

It might have been fun while it lasted. But how long would it have lasted?

Basil versus the "cabal"

Mark Devenport | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


i got drenched on my way back from attending Basil McCrea's leadership campaign launch at the Merchant Hotel and the water is still dripping down from my hair onto my keyboard as I type!

The style of this launch contrasted strongly with Tom Elliott's event in Antrim. Both candidates emphasised their support from both men and women (whilst Tom had Sandra Overend -and belatedly I should add Jo-Anne Dobson - Basil had Paula Bradshaw and Leslie Macauley), but Basil made great play of his supporters from across society, with a former head of the Ulster Farmers Union, a Montupet shop steward and a couple of business figures. Tom had far and away more UUP elected representatives - but Basil tried to turn this around by portraying himself as the anti-establishment figure, joking that "Tom is supported by many MLAs and party officials, I won't go into what other problems he has, but he's got those people behind him."

Mr McCrea depicted himself as the moderniser up against the traditionalists. He made five pledges (although unlike Tony Blair he hadn't written them out in hand for all to see). They were that he wouldn't take a ministry until the success of the party is assured, that the UUP would take education as its first choice, there would be no pacts, MLAs would be subjected to regular appraisals of their attendance and performance and discipline would be tightly enforce to end the era of mixed messages. On this latter point he made it pretty clear, without naming them, that he had David McNarry's election night pronouncement on Sir Reg Empey in mind, along with Danny Kennedy's talk ofa coalition with the DUP and Fred Cobain's threat that if the Stormont rules aren't changed the UUP would form an Assembly group with the DUP.

Mr McCrea railed against the "cabal of cronies" who believed they had a divine right to lead the UUP, and pledged to ensure the party once again provided Northern Ireland's First Minister.

That latter pronouncement seems to be rather over optimistic, something underlined when Diana Rusk of the Irish News asked the candidate if his pledge on taking education had any merit given that the DUP or Sinn Fein would get their choice of departments first. Basil McCrea replied by insisting the UUP would emerge from next year's Assembly election as the biggest party.

Sure, there is nothing wrong with wishful thinking - but even though there's a bookmakers next door to the Merchant hotel I didn't nip in to put any money on that result next May. However the outcome on September 22nd, when the two candidates make their pitch to the UUP delegates, might be more worthy of a flutter.

The UUP's Cultural Divide

Mark Devenport | 12:10 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010


When Sir Reg Empey announced his departure as UUP leader, it might have been assumed that the main battleground for those seeking his job would have been political - namely their views on unionist unity and the Conservative link. As I noted last month, the gap between Basil McCrea and Tom Elliott on these points seems to have closed after Mr Elliot's declaration of opposition to a single unionist party and criticism of the "UCUNF brand".

But now the divide between the two men on social and cultural matters is coming to the fore. In a BBC Radio Foyle debate the leadership contenders touched on their attitude to reaching out to Catholics. Both sounded positive but Mr McCrea talked about actions speaking louder than words and his readiness to attend other churches and to welcome visits by church leaders.

Now Tom Elliott says he's not interested in attending either gay pride events or GAA matches. Although he told the Nolan show that he wasn't ruling out the possibility forever, his stance contrasted strongly with that of Basil McCrea who confirmed that he had and would attend both such events.

Ironically Mr Elliott's comments came into the public eye off the back of a blog entry from his supporter Mike Nesbitt congratulating the Down team on reaching the All Ireland final. Alliance's Gerry Lynch has pounced on the comments, claiming Mr Elliott is posing as Lord Brookeborough's reincarnation. Until now Mr Elliott has looked to be the front runner, but it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, his social, cultural and moral views have on his contest with Mr McCrea.

Hearing Loss Dosh

Mark Devenport | 17:16 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010


A lot of attention has been paid today to the £1.1 million cost of policing this summer's Ardoyne riots. But this sum seems paltry by comparison to some of the figures under discussion in the Stormont Justice Committee, particularly the amounts now being budgeted for historic claims from former police officers for hearing loss. The projected cost has risen sharply from around £14 million to nearer £30 million.

The Justice Chair, Lord Morrow, wondered whether we should be braced for a further doubling of what he called the "startling" pay outs to £60 million. But the Justice official Anthony Harbinson told him not to worry as it was in the best interests of the local department "if the figure continues to rise as quickly and as high as it possibly can". It wouldn't be a problem, he continued, if the cost rose to £60 million or even £90 million, as the UK reserve was committed to picking up the bill under the Hillsborough agreement.

Lord Morrow cautioned that, after the Spending Review on October 20th, "this may not be a bottomless pit". But the Justice officials appeared confident that the Treasury understood the scale of the hearing loss problem and would honour their previous undertakings.

Breakthrough or Breakdown?

Mark Devenport | 15:02 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010


The Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was in East Belfast today attending the launch of a report from his Centre for Social Justice think tank which contained some pretty gloomy statistics about poverty here. According to "Breakthrough Northern Ireland" we have the highest rate of economic inactivity in the UK, 63,000 children living in poverty, a sharp increase in the divorce rate and drug related deaths, and 72% of men between 18 and 29 binge drinking at least once a week.

Mr Duncan Smith doesn't think you can chuck money at these problems. Instead he says you must tackle what he calls the five drivers of poverty "welfare dependency, family breakdown, educational failure, drug and alcohol addiction, and debt."

Local voluntary groups attenidng the launch appeared concerned over the Welfare Secretary's talk of "conditionality", under which people would lose their benefits if they weren't ready and available to take work. As this blog reported back in May claims here for incapacity benefit and income support are well above the UK average.

Mr Duncan Smith defended his approach as commonsense. Helping people back to work, he argued, provided more than just economic value, it also gave them a renewed purpose in their lives. He attacked the current system as "byzantine" promising a new unified appraoch tapering benefits away in order to ensure people had a clear incentive to work.

The SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie entered a note of caution. She argued that people in Northern Ireland had fewer opportunities to work and a lack of affordable child care. She appealed for local "areas of flexibility" should Mr Duncan Smith push ahead with his ideas.

It's hard to imagine the kind of changes the Welfare Secretary is talking about being implemented in a hurry. Introducing a Universal Welfare Credit to replace the multitude of different benefits would be a huge task. Many would approve of attempts to move society here away from welfare dependency. But those reliant on benefits will no doubt fear that, despite all Mr Duncan Smith's talk of improving their lives, they will end up as the targets of a cost cutting policy. One Stormont aide later suggested to me that what we might see is not a swift wholesale change, but a series of pilot schemes testing out the new approach in areas of the UK. This could be a slow burn, but the eventual implications for Northern Ireland should not be underestimated.

Blair's Journey

Mark Devenport | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Although he says that every conflict is different, it's striking how Tony Blair peppers his recollections of Northern Ireland with comparisons and contrasts with the Middle East., as if his time here served as an apprenticeship for his current international peace broker role. As David McKittrick pointed out on Good Morning Ulster today his account, which appears in edited form on his website bears out the notion of the peace process as a slow moving bicycle which must be kept moving at all costs. He is also open about his "Machiavellian" approach "stretching the truth, I fear, on occasions past breaking point".

Ian Paisley is remembered as "clever, shrewd, occasionally even sly" whilst he liked Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness "probably more than I should have" knowing that "both could be clever and manipulative; but so can I".

Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Mark Devenport | 12:26 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Ryanair planes might not be flying into Belfast for much longer, but there's no shortage of aerial traffic. Martina Purdy was warned to watch out for pigeon poo as she made her way into Stormont to cover Conor Murphy's appearance before the Regional Development Committee today. Apparently the birds have been bombarding one of the entrances - so are they annoyed about the Incinerator decision, or up in arms about Michael O'Leary's departure?

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