BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for April 2011

Devenport Diaries R.I.P

Mark Devenport | 10:28 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

Comments (4)

As some of you may know, the BBC has conducted a review of its many sites, with a view to streamlining its web offering. I don't know exactly which tests were applied, although I can imagine (does the blog host regularly split his or her infinitives, how many typos go uncorrected, what is the general level of derision prompted by his or her posts and so on). But somehow, inexplicably, the Devenport Diaries has survived!

However there is always a price to pay. Whilst my continuing analysis of the election campaign and reportage of some of the more off beat episodes of life on the hill will now appear here, the new cross BBC format means the page will simply be called Mark Devenport, not the Devenport Diaries.

I fought long and hard for my alliteration, but the powers-that-be wouldn't budge. If any of my colleagues get away with assonance, puns or other word play I shall be on to the Equality Commission pronto.

The Devenport Diaries (and your comments) will remain archived, and I'd like to express my gratitude to all of you who have left a comment or just paid this blog a visit since 2007. I hope you enjoy my new page which will incorporate my tweets, video, audio and news stories as as well as blog entries.

"Brick bandits" and mini manifestoes

Mark Devenport | 15:39 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

Comments (36)

I spent this morning at Belfast's Waterfront Hall with a confident looking DUP. The party is attempting the hard sell on peace and power sharing that the UUP was unable to embark on a decade ago (although as UUP types have pointed out to me having the DUP outside the tent in those days made that job rather more difficult).

Peter Robinson swiped away my question about the possibility of a Sinn Fein Justice Minister after the current cross community compromise expires, and relegated any discussion about Martin McGuinness as First Minister to a footnote at the event.

Although Mr Robinson said it was vital the DUP remain biggest party in order to ensure unionists get first pick of departments, his manifesto doesn't dwell on the possibility of Sinn Fein usurping the top job. Instead it promises no increase in tuition fees, greater efficiency in the health service and the preservation and promotion of grammar schools.

As ever with manifestoes you have to watch the precise wording - if, for example. in 4 or 5 years time 20,000 new jobs have not materialised then the DUP can say they only promised to "support the creation" of these posts. I too promise to "support the creation" of new employment - I shall cheer it on but don't blame me if it doesn't happen.

The party also produced a postcard sized mini manifesto which boils down their committments to seven top priorities. This is particularly handy for busy people like, say, BBC Political Editors, who don't have the time to read through all the fine print.

Interestingly, though, there is room on the postcard for specific pledges which aren't in the full manifesto. For example, the postcard promises that "the DUP will block additional water charges" but the full manifesto only talks about working "to keep household bills at a minimum". I am assured by a senior DUP source there's no sleight of hand here, and the postcard pledge has the full weight of a manifesto committment.

The DUP also pledged a crackdown on "brick bandits". Since I cannot imagine they have anything against the New Jersey house band of the same name, I assume this means action against those who steal building materials from Housing Executive sites.

I didn't make it to the Baby Grand for the Sinn Fein launch as our very own "tweeting freak" Martina Purdy was looking after it. But I have just opened up the manifesto file on the USB stick provided to reporters. Just like the DUP, Sinn Fein rule out student fee hikes or extra water charges. They want to harmonise tax rates north and south and reinstate 50/50 recruitment to the police.

Sinn Fein wants an "all Ireland job creation" plan, but unlike the DUP don't put any number on how many new jobs might be feasible. As reported previously, they want to take £25 million annually off each of the four main banks to create a "Sustainable Economic Development Bond" and to push ahead with changes to legislation to enable a similar strategy to be employed in relation to Belfast port.

The Sinn Fein manifesto's mention of a referendum on Irish unity encouraged me to revisit the Good Friday Agreement to check what it said on the matter. The Agreement says the Secretary of State can call a border poll "if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland." Once a poll is held, another cannot be organised for at least seven years. So once they've finished criticising him for - in their view - not keeping to pledges on capital spending, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will have to do their best to persuade Owen Paterson of the need for a referendum.

When I mentioned a line in the DUP manifesto suggesting a "FixOurStreetNI" website I was instantly festooned by tweets from SDLP activists insisting they had the copyright on this idea. Despite the global economic downturn I seem to have huge problems persuading anyone to come around and give me a quote for work on my house. Perhaps I should create my own personal "FixMyHome"website, although I am not entirely convinced by some of the offers of help I have received as I suspect they would lead to Devenport Towers getting plastered with partisan posters, not the kind of neutral off-white I had in mind.

Off air

Mark Devenport | 13:54 UK time, Sunday, 17 April 2011

Comments (10)

I'm just off air after this week's Inside Politics. Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness wouldn't give away his party's exact pecking order when it comes to departments, preferring to play his cards close to his chest rather than confirm speculation they might choose an economic portfolio ahead of education.

He didn't seem in the mood to offer to extend the cross community system for electing the Justice Minister beyond its expiry date of May 2012. Instead he argued that Sinn Fein had passed every test which had been set for it when it comes to policing and justice. Mr McGuinness said he would tackle the issue with Peter Robinson after the election, by which time the clock will be ticking towards yet another peace process deadline.

When I asked the Deputy First Minister whether he'd put a foot wrong in claiming that the murdered Constable Ronan Kerr would have been a Sinn Fein voter he claimed that liberties had been taken in the reports of his comments. However I was able to point out that audio has been posted on the internet, backing the reports up.

Finally we discussed whether, given the evidence of dissident activity in East Tyrone, it is wise to press ahead with the construction of a police training college near Cookstown. Mr McGuinness maintained the project still made sense in security as well as political terms.

I also talked to Jim Allister, the TUV leader, who reiterated his opposition to the Stormont system and repeated his belief that the lack of an opposition puts Northern Ireland on a par with North Korea. I also raised with Mr Allister press reports that the Queen will deliver an apology for the 1920 Croke Park massacre whilst visiting Dublin next month. Mr Allister thinks that, if she does, this will be unwise and believes the series of apologies have been all one way (not surprisingly Martin McGuinness didn't share that perspective).

Finally I talked to the Socialist Party's Paddy Meehan. The Socialists (who previously were known as the Militant Tendency working within the Labour party) only got 473 votes when they stood in the 2007 Assembly elections. However they point to the recent Dail elections, in which they got 2 TDs elected, and hope that their opposition to any cuts will pay dividends. Mr Meehan reckons the participation of left wing parties in the election serves to expose the Stormont parties' attitude to the cuts as words rather than actions.

As I write the Politics Show is on air, with an outside broadcast from Omagh and a report by Yvette Shapiro on whether the Stormont structures will ever change. If you didn't catch it, there's another chance to tune in to the repeat on BBC1 tonight at 11.25pm

Where was I?

Mark Devenport | 15:46 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

Comments (9)

The sun shone on the campaign today, which turned out to be especially good news for me as the BBC news channel had booked me in for a series of outside broadcasts from Belfast City Hall. We have been talking to academics, the Consumer Council and first time candidates about the campaign in general and issues like health and tuition fees.

Yesterday I missed the UUP manifesto because I was gathering raw material for a constituency report due to be broadcast on BBC Newsline later this month. Whilst the UUP were unveiling their programme for government "game changer" I was watching toddlers playing games at a scheme threatened with loss of funding. I drove up some hills to meet the UUP and SF then got rather fishy with the DUP. I also met some people with a "Whole Lotta Sole" whilst out canvassing with the SDLP. So where was I?

Purdah or P.E.P?

Mark Devenport | 09:38 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Comments (21)

Bit of a fuss yesterday over whether the SDLP's housing announcement broke the so-called "purdah" rules, under which civil servants and government departments try to steer clear of anything party political or agenda grabbing during a campaign period.

The SDLP denies any rule has been broken and further points to the DUP leader's announcement of a breakthrough for PMS savers as a more blatant example of stretching the convention. The Social Development department eventually confirmed the figures already revealed by their minister, Alex Attwood, via an e-mail, but if you visit their website you won't see any official announcement (although they do seem to have been convicting a lot of benefit fraudsters lately there's no sign of any action against purdah fraudsters).

In truth political parties can't break purdah as the rules which you can read here, only apply to civil servants and special advisers.

No doubt the debate about what is or isn't a breach of the rules will continue, but should we be using the term "Purdah" at all? The Stormont guidance doesn't use the term, talking instead about the "formal election period". In Wales four years ago there was a bit of controversy over whether the use of the term "Purdah" might be offensive to Muslims or Hindus. Instead Welsh officials were instructed to refer to the Pre Election Period or P.E.P.

One thing I know. If Purdah requires women to hide themselves away during this pre-election period, then there's one woman (whose surname sounds remarkably similar) who will not hesitate a nanosecond before flouting the convention. Indeed if all goes according to plan she will be usurping my slot on this week's "Hearts and Minds".

Rory and the DUP

Mark Devenport | 17:19 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Comments (3)

A DUP politician, whose blushes I shall spare, jokingly messaged on Sunday "McDowell wins US Open last year. McIlroy leading the Masters this year. The DUP delivering for Ulster!"

Today after young Mr McIlroy's disastrous final round he updated with "McIlroy crashes out at US Masters golf. The reason for this major setback is obvious - UUP/Tory cuts!"

It made perfect sense to most people at the DUP's breakfast briefing this morning, except for the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who hadn't a clue what the messages were about. Sammy confesses he isn't interested in golf or any other sport, and must have been one of the few Ulstermen or women entirely ignorant of the ecstasy and agony of the Holywood golfing star. Perhaps Rory should have joined Sammy on his allotment - he would have had a less stressful weekend.

Unionism's Bermuda Triangle

Mark Devenport | 14:39 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Comments (3)

The corner of the Belmont and Holywood Roads in East Belfast is the equivalent of unionism's Bermuda Triangle. A journalist or a candidate could get sucked in there and never come out. The same small area includes the DUP HQ, the UUP office where all election news conferences are held and Jim Allister's campaign base. This morning we started off at a DUP breakfast at the Park Avenue hotel, crossed the road to get a reaction clip from the UUP's Mike Nesbitt then zigzagged around the corner for the TUV's manifesto launch.

Of course I am meant to be impartial between all of these events, but I am prepared to say that if I were to be sucked into the triangle without hope of escape I would probably hope to be washed ashore at Bennett's coffee shop, right in the middle of the vortex. It always does a good latte.

The DUP leader told us that whilst the murder of Ronan Kerr was the major issue on the doorsteps last week, the next topic was the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. The DUP claim they aren't raising this themselves, but voters are expressing their concerns. This sounds like a subtle formulation which puts the issue into the public discourse, even though the bookies seem not to rate the chances of Sinn Fein grabbing the top spot.

Over at the UUP, Mike Nesbitt said voters weren't raising the First Minister question, describing it as a red herring. The election, he maintained, was being fought about the economy, jobs, health provision and education.

The TUV launched their manifesto this morning. On the First Minister question, Jim Allister challenged Peter Robinson not to nominate a candidate for Deputy First Minister if Sinn Fein come out on top. This scheme for scuppering Martin McGuinness's chances of becoming First Minister was raised on Inside Politics and this blog back in February. At that stage Peter Robinson denied this was one of those "clever devices" which he had up his sleeve, insisting his only stratagem is to ensure the DUP remain the largest party.

During a typically pugnacious performance Mr Allister denounced the Stormont system as undemocratic and castigated the Stormont politicians for wasting the public's money. His economics spokesman David Vance described Owen Paterson's support for cutting corporation tax as a "dangerous gamble" which wasn't being tried in England. The TUV manifesto makes it clear that the party opposes harmonising the tax across the border for political as well as economic reasons.

And as I pointed out in my tweets, there were a few spirited exchanges between Mr Allister and the assembled hacks, which included him accusing one of us of sycophancy and another of being a "tweeting freak". Even in election campaigns, Mr Allister believes attack is the best form of defence.

Due to my desire to rush out and enjoy the April sunshine yesterday afternoon, I didn't get writing about this weekend's Inside Politics. If you missed it you can listen again to the programme here. My lead interview was with the UUP leader Tom Elliott. Mr Elliott began the week saying Sinn Fein could do more in terms of giving information on the dissidents. But he used Sunday's interview to welcome the arms find in Coalisland, which he assumed might have been the result of information being provided by mainstream republicans.

We also talked about the Altnagelvin radiotherapy centre, the UUP's ideas on opposition and Mr Elliott's relationship with the Conservatives. Eight days ago the local Conservatives released a statement in which they talked about expanding "so that we are in a position to select strong Conservative candidates for all future elections." But Mr Elliott denied that this signalled the end of his party's link with the Tories - he pointed out that Jim Nicholson continue to serve as part of the Conservative grouping in Europe and, should the UUP get any MPs elected in the future, they will still consider having a relationship with the Tories at Westminster.

On Inside Politics we are talking to all the parties standing in three or more constituencies - the same criteria applied to getting a party election broadcast. This weekend I interviewed two very contrasting smaller parties - on the left of the spectrum Eamon McCann denied the People Before Profit alliance is a "front" for the Socialist Workers Party, insisting it was a broad attempt to give discontented voters a voice. Although Mr McCann's political views don't have much in common with those of the TUV's David Vance, he shares Mr Vance's opposition to the proposed cut in corporation tax describing the notion that this might kick start the economy as "nonsense", designed to transfer resources from the poor to the rich.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from PBP, my final interviewee was Nick Griffin, the leader of the right wing BNP. This is the first intervention by the BNP in a Stormont Assembly election. After the Revenue and Customs dismissed seven Belfast based staff for discriminating against people from ethnic minorities by altering their records to deprive them of benefits, Ann Cooper - who has now been named as the BNP's East Belfast candidate - tweeted that the staff concerned deserved a medal and she was sorry they had been caught.

Mr Griffin didn't back away from Ms Cooper's comments, maintaining that too much money was being paid to those who he described as "bogus asylum seekers and foreign spongers" and justifying the staff's illegal actions as part of Northern Ireland people's "long tradition of standing up to the government."

Tweet Wars

Mark Devenport | 15:47 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Comments (15)

This has been Northern Ireland's first real twitter election and generally I've been sceptical about how much of a difference that makes, other than having politicians tell us they've just completed an excellent canvass. But there are exceptions that prove the rule. The Ulster Unionist Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson have just demonstrated that you don't have to be staring at each other across the Assembly chamber to have a good ding dong.

Mr McGimpsey tweeted that he'd received a warm response strolling around Sandy Row in South Belfast. Ms Anderson responded "You want to try walking about Foyle - then you would get the true measure of views held of you": a clear reference to his decision not to press ahead with the Altnagelvin radiotherapy centre.

The Health Minister hit back "was it not Sinn Fein/DUP/Alliance who voted FOR health cuts? I remain committed to Altnagelvin & work will continue when money becomes available." But Ms Anderson replied scornfully "Remain Committed! Catch yourself on. It will be the incoming Executive that will deliver the Cancer Unit not you, Michael Tory"

Mr McGimpsey enquired whether that meant "Sinn Fein will be taking health in the next Executive to deliver it? Im glad to hear it." Back came the reply "you can rest assure that whether we take it or not we will be making sure it's delivered:Executive doesn't need your permission".

All good knock about stuff, as recognised by Stephen Nolan who promptly invited both of them onto the airwaves to which only Ms Anderson responded with "Ready Willing & Able When?"

Martina versus Michael. As Harry Hill might say there's only one way to sort this out....fight!

On a more peaceable note, the SDLP's Claire Hanna and Sinn Fein's Conor Maskey have been swapping tales of terrible canvassing experience, egged on by blogger AlaninBelfast. Ms Hanna recounts being told to get lost in no uncertain terms by a householder and beating a hasty retreat - she then made her way down the next drive and knocked the next door, only to discover it was a seperate entrance to the same irate voter's home.

But Conor Maskey beat that with his moving account of winning over a more supportive constituent. As he walked away, chalking the house up as a likely vote, some local kids kicked a ball in his direction. He blasted it back, smacking the son of the friendly voter full in the face.

Beragh's Powerful Symbolism

Mark Devenport | 11:18 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Comments (12)

For anyone who remembers the days of Rule 21, the GAA regulation which prevented members of the security forces playing Gaelic sports, or the long term arguments over the army's occupation of part of Crossmaglen's ground, the image of young men and women weaing GAA tops standing alongside other young men and women in police uniforms as part of the shared guard of honour at Ronan Kerr's funeral looks like powerful evidence of a fundamental shift within the nationalist community.

If reports of the Queen visiting Croke Park prove accurate, then the spring of 2011 will be remembered as something of a watershed for the GAA, given the history of British forces opening fire on the crowds there back in 1920.

It's important not to get too carried away - the appearance of graffiti in Derry and the recent disturbances in Craigavon underline the fact that dissidents can still count on some support within specific areas. However if Chairman Mao was right when he said that a guerrilla army needs popular support like a fish needs water then you would have to conclude that the water the dissidents are swimming in is very shallow.

Animated Alliance

Mark Devenport | 13:01 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Comments (4)

I went to the Waterfront Hall this morning, where Alliance held their first formal election event. They previewed an animated Party Election Broadcast narrated by Naomi Long. The mood seemed upbeat - Alliance believes that the UUP's difficulties and apparent swing to the right will present them with an opportunity.

David Ford talked as if two seats in East Belfast were almost in the bag. After Naomi Long's Westminster victory, he argued, Alliance was the lead party in the east of the city. But what about Peter Robinson's renaissance? A resurgence by the DUP could put paid to Alliance's ambitions - one seat looks assured, but a second could be a scramble.

Alliance have been seen to be signing off the same hymn sheet as the DUP and Sinn Fein in recent times - not just in the show of solidarity at Stormont Castle, but in their votes on the budget. However David Ford seemed keen to put some clear "yellow water" between the two parties, describing Peter Robinson's recent comments on integrated education as "partly an opportunity to knock the maintained sector".

Mr Ford believes Alliance can gain 2 or 3 seats which would put them in position to take a Stormont department under the D'Hondt system. Conversely he is also backing a reduction in the number of thosde departments, down to 7 or 8. My colleague Martina Purdy will assess how the Stormont system might be reformed on BBC Newsline tonight.

Earlier in the day I tweeted about the makers of the Alliance broadcast having had a hand in the "Mad Men" series titles - an admission, I took a joke rather too seriously, so put that down as a belated April Fool. But it's not only Alliance which have been experimenting with new formats - last night's DUP broadcast featuring a couple decorating their house was a novel change to the usual procession of politicians holding forth to camera. The TUV's David Vance isn't the only one who has noticed the resemblance to an episode of "Changing Rooms".

Of course the DUP would prefer the "Groundhog Day" analogy - don't vote for us and get stuck in the past. But the digital clock reading 2003 felt like a clever wheeze too far - I missed half the commentary that followed after puzzling over why this couple were lying in until 8 pm. Does Mr and Mrs Average NI work the night shift?

Deja Vu

Mark Devenport | 12:46 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011


It felt almost like a reconstruction of the events two years ago. Then, outside Stormont Castle, the First and Deputy First Ministers had appeared alongside Hugh Orde and Martin McGuinness delivered his memorable line describing dissidents as "traitors to the people of Ireland".

Today the rain meant the show of solidarity took place indoors. There were a few other tweaks to the choreography - Northern Ireland now has a new Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, and a local Justice Minister, David Ford. But the intention was the same - to send out a message of unity and strength. Martin McGuinness called the dissidents' campaign a "useless war against peace" - not quite as catchy as his previous quote but it got the message over just the same.

The politicians didn't want to be drawn on what divides them - for example, the decision by the Secretary of State to drop the rule requiring the police to recruit equal numbers of catholics and non-Catholics. Unionists campaigned for 50/50 to be dropped, nationalists thought it premature. But the First Minister regarded it as irrelevant to the weekend murder, whilst the Deputy First Minister insisted that young Catholics would not be deterred from joining the police in the future.

On Inside Politics yesterday Margaret Ritchie also said she wanted to avoid making political points. But under questioning the SDLP leader reiterated her opposition to dropping 50/50 and questioned the advice which she thought "securocrats" had been giving to the Secretary of State Owen Paterson before he made his decision.

This morning the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott condemned Constable Kerr's murder as senseless. But he insisted that some mainstream republicans, including politicians in government, "know who these people are" and should be doing more to provide evidence. Martin McGuinness says anyone with information should give it to either the Garda or PSNI. But the Ulster Unionists don't appear convinced, pointing out that the Sinn Fein Minister Michelle Gildernew recently gave the former IRA member Gerry McGeough a reference as he awaited sentencing on an historic crime. They accuse Sinn Fein of sending out "mixed messages".

On top of this, Ronan Kerr's murderers struck during an election campaign, posing the parties with dillemmas about how best to respond. Both the DUP and the SDLP postponed campaign events due to take place today, whilst Sinn Fein pressed ahead with an event at Belfast's Waterfront Hall insisting that the dissidents must not be allowed to set the agenda. There are also indications that some politicians weren't happy that this morning's appearance alongside the Chief Constable didn't include all the main party leaders.

So there are differences over the details - but the rejection of violence and a determination to press ahead with peaceful democratic politics encompasses all the main players in this Assembly election campaign.

Gerry refreshes the town hall meetings other TDs cannot reach

Mark Devenport | 12:10 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011


I spent last night at Sinn Fein's first town hall meeting which took place, not in a town hall, but in the Roddy McCorley social club in West Belfast. Around 200 republican supporters gathered there and waited...and waited...and waited for Gerry Adams and two of the party's new team in the Dail to turn up.

The meeting turned out to be a "stress test" for the logistics of Sinn Fein's all Ireland project as the TDs were delayed discussing the banking crisis in the Dail. In the end both the Party President and the new Dublin Central TD Mary Lou McDonald made it, but the Donegal TD Pearse Doherty had to pull out to "mind the shop" back in Dublin.

But during the wait I learned a few things.

First, the West Belfast Westminster by-election is likely to take place in June - the government had already made it clear they thought it would be too confusing to run the contest at the same time as the council, Assembly and AV votes.

Second, former IRA prisoner Bobby Storey won't be a candidate - whilst making a speech to fill in the time he referred to speculation he could be the next MP with a brief dismissive "no chance!"

Third, if you have to hire a compere for an event you could do worse than Sue Ramsey. She valiantly filled the gap in proceedings with a few quips. When Gerry Adams turned up and asked her to say a few words, she retorted that she'd already been talking forever to cover for him, so he better get to his feet and start straight away. He asked her how she'd entertained the folks and she replied "I read them your notes".

When the Party President got going he defended Sinn Fein's record in West Belfast, praised Caitriona Ruane (insisting she was being targeted by opponents because of the fundamental change she had ushered into education), and set the current campaign in the context of the party's all-Ireland ambitions.

That theme was echoed by Mary Lou McDonald who insisted "the bounce of the ball" is now with Sinn Fein. As an aside, Mr Adams revealed that, because of the largest ever turnover in TDs, things are still a bit chaotic at the Dail, where the Sinn Fein team have been working without offices or computers. This, he promised, would be rectified soon.

The local Assembly and council candidates sat in seats behind the speakers who predictably bigged them up. At one point Gerry Adams resorted to a beer advert analogy, whichs seemed appropriate enough given we were in a big bar. But he got in a bit of a mix when he told the audience that if Heineken made candidates then they would make candidates just like the ones on the stage. He paused before correcting himself - "that was Carlsberg, wasn't it?".

So which party in this campaign will refresh the parts other politicians cannot reach?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.