Thursday, 29 April 2010

Profile Number 5 - Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Right, I'll be honest - there may be a tiny little bit more naked partisan politics at work here, ironically for a candidate who isn't even an official Conservative and Unionist. As everyone will know, the two main Unionist parties have withdrawn their candidates in favour of the former Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council, Rodney Connor. Connor is running as an Independent and has the wholehearted support of the Unionist establishment in the constituency, not to mention the fervent good wishes of every Unionist in Northern Ireland.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone has existed in various incarnations since it was created in 1950, with the division of the old two member Fermanagh and Tyrone constituency into Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster. Like Mid-Ulster, it quickly proved to be a marginal seat, but was at first won by Nationalists, including an imprisoned IRA member standing on the Sinn Fein ticket in 1955. However, the Unionists of the day were successful in having Phil Clarke unseated and their candidate declared elected instead. Unionists held the seat until 1970, when they lost to Frank McManus, who himself lost to the late Harry West, the then UUP leader, in February 1974. West himself lost to Independent Nationalist unity candidate Frank Maguire in that year's second General Election. (Maguire later gained some notoriety in 1979 when he went to Westminster for the vote of no confidence in James Callaghan's government, but abstained). He died suddenly in 1981, which led to the election of Bobby Sands in the subsequent by-election. After Owen Carron won the seat in yet another by-election, Ken Maginnis won the seat back for Unionism in 1983, and hung on until retirement in 2001. He polled over 50% of the vote in 1997. The seat in its current form exists since the 1995 boundary review, when it lost the Coalisland and Donaghmore area to the new Mid-Ulster.

What's been happening since 2001 is well known; the DUP backed an Independent candidate in 2001 and the Shinners kept a polling station open after 10pm, all of which contributed to Michelle Gildernew sneaking the seat by a mere 53 votes. The split in the Unionist vote contributed to an easy victory for Gildernew in 2005, but this time, it's not so simple. Gildernew is considerably more prominent now than she was in 2001 (being Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development does no harm at all) but victory is by no means assured. There is every possibility, indeed it's quite likely, that FST will have the highest turnout of any constituency in the United Kingdom. It will be a two horse race, but if the Unionist community down there have any sense, they know what they have to do. Sinn Fein are throwing everything at this, so a Connor victory is by no means a shoo in either, but I do think it can be done. The SDLP are in gentle decline here - Fearghal McKinney was a good journalist in his day, and is undoubtedly an asset for the SDLP, but he's in completely the wrong constituency. He's not helped by Sinn Fein's unilateral withdrawal in Belfast South either - a blind man on a galloping horse, to coin a phrase, can see why the Shinners pulled Maskey; a seat they couldn't possibly win, an uncertain Assembly seat, and the added benefit of completely shafting the SDLP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and possibly in other constituencies, such as Belfast North, South Down and Foyle; the ''ripple effect'' of Nationalist goodwill. Mind you, Gildernew needs the vast, vast majority of Nationalists to vote for her in order to pull her home - one commentator on Slugger estimated she needed 90% of all Nationalist voters in FST to do it, which is more than the 85% of Nationalists who voted for Sinn Fein in Belfast West at the 2007 Assembly elections when they hauled 5 of the 6 seats.

Rounding off the ticket, apart from Fearghal McKinney himself (who, you might reasonably ask, will defect from UTV to the DUP, SF and Alliance? Anyone for the TUV?) is Alliance candidate Vasundhara Kamble. Alliance actually appear to have a branch in the constituency, unlike most western areas. Mind you, that won't stop Ms Kamble polling very poorly. Another Independent is running, a chap named John Stevenson, who appears to be fighting on an anti-cuts and job losses ticket. If ever the phrase ''one to watch'' applied anywhere, it's Fermanagh and South Tyrone this time out. Needless to say, this blog wholeheartedly supports Rodney Connor.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Profile Number 4 - West Tyrone

Justify Full
West Tyrone is the newest constituency, being created at the 1995 boundary review. Consisting of the entire districts of Omagh and Strabane, it was taken almost entirely from the old Mid-Ulster, then still represented by William McCrea. A little bit of Strabane District was taken from the old Foyle. The seat had a significant Nationalist majority, but was won against the odds by William Thompson (UUP) at the 1997 General Election, after the SDLP and Sinn Fein polled a similar number of votes each. As an aside, Thompson had been the last UUP candidate to contest the old Mid-Ulster back in 1983, when he polled poorly against McCrea. Thompson was avowedly anti-Belfast Agreement after 1998 and proved a major thorn in David Trimble's side. In 2001, despite being the sole Unionist candidate, his vote actually went down by about 1,500 and he was defeated by then Sinn Fein Vice-President Pat Doherty, who holds the seat still. The SDLP were roundly humiliated on that occasion, coming third in a three horse race after foolishly talking up their chances. At the 2003 Assembly election, West Tyrone produced a major shock by electeing Independent candidate Dr Kieran Deeny on the first count (Deeny was a single issue candidate, fighting to keep Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh open; he failed). In 2005, Deeny came second to Doherty, polling almost 12,000 votes. On that occasion, the UUP were utterly destroyed in the constituency, coming last in the pack and polling fewer than 3,000 votes. The DUP, in the form of Thomas Buchanan MLA, outpolled us considerably. In 2007, things reached a nadir, when we lost our Assembly seat here to the DUP's second candidate. The SDLP also lost their Assembly seat here, but then they ran a masterclass on how not to fight a PR-STV election; three candidates fighting for one seat and terrible balancing meant they actually polled over a quota of first preferences but failed to hold their seat, losing to Sinn Fein's third candidate.

Since then though, the West Tyrone UUP Association has been reinvigorated. Despite losing their MLA, they've kept the office in Omagh open, produce a regular newsletter and hold surgeries across the constituency. They deserve real credit for this, and I often wonder how many people across the party are aware of the massive effort required on the part of many people in the constituency? This time out, we are running former RUC officer and Omagh councillor Ross Hussey, obviously with an eye to regaining the Assembly seat. Hussey is a good guy who deserves to do very well- he came to national attention in 2009, when a mocked up election leaflet playing on his alleged resemblance to Family Guy character Peter Griffin was publicised. He will face off against the fairly low-profile Pat Doherty, the now ex-Sinn Fein Vice President. Hussey's Unionist competition will come from his fellow Omagh councillor and DUP MLA since 2003, Thomas Buchanan. The TUV are not running here. The SDLP, obviously without an MLA here as well and with a quickly declining voter base, are running former councillor and MLA Joe Byrne. Byrne was the SDLP candidate narrowly defeated by Thompson in 1997. Alliance, somewhat unusually, are running a candidate with some local roots in this far from key constituency for them, a chap named Michael Bower, the former Chair of Young Alliance. He was educated in Omagh and lived in the town for a few years. The great question in West Tyrone is where will Kieran Deeny's 11,000+ votes from 2005 go to? Many of them were undoubtedly from the SDLP and the Unionist parties, so it will be interesting to see if they return to their natural 'homes.'

Profile Number 3 - Mid-Ulster

Mid-Ulster is, regrettably, a constituency where the result isn't really in doubt; our deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, will walk it. The seat he first gained from William McCrea back in 1997 on a majority of under 2,000 has become Sinn Fein's second safest, with a majority of just under 11,000 in 2005. It wasn't always thus - created in 1950, the seat has a chequered electoral history, being won first by Nationalist candidates, then after the election of Tom Mitchell (an imprisoned IRA man) in 1955, was handed to the defeated Unionist, Charles Beattie, once it was decided that Mitchell, being a convicted terrorist serving a prison sentence, technically wasn't eligible. Beattie was himself declared ineligible shortly afterwards, as he held an office of profit under the Crown. The Unionists, in the form of George Forrest, held the seat in the by-election. He died in 1968, and the ensuing by-election was won by Bernadette Devlin (then the youngest MP in the Commons), who was then defeated in 1974 by the late John Dunlop, who retired in 1983. The seat was won that year by William McCrea, who defeated Danny Morrison, the then Vice President of Sinn Fein, by only 78 votes. McCrea of course held on until 1997.

The constituency McCrea represented for 14 years is very different to the one McGuinness doesn't represent now. Most of the old Mid-Ulster is now West Tyrone, and the new Mid-Ulster includes all of Magherafelt District (the bulk of which was in the old East Londonderry), all of Cookstown District (which was in the old Mid-Ulster) and the Torrent DEA of Dungannon Borough Council (which was in the old Fermanagh and South Tyrone). The 1995 boundary review created a mainly Nationalist constituency which any Unionist would find difficult to win, and so it proved. You have to feel sorry for the SDLP though, who must have thought they were in with a decent chance of winning in 1997 (at least until McGuinness came along), having considerably outperformed Sinn Fein in the old Mid-Ulster in 1987 and 1992...

I have no doubt that Martin McGuinness will be declared re-elected on 7th May as MP for Mid-Ulster. Given the fragmentation of the Unionist vote, there is a decent chance that the SDLP could take second place, the preserve of the DUP since 1997. Never a strong UUP constituency, our party didn't contest the seat at Westminster level for 22 years until 2005, when Billy Armstrong MLA polled just under 11% of the vote. The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists are running this time though, with Sandra Overend carrying the flag. Sandra is one of four female candidates the alliance is running, and amongst other things, is the party's Woman's Officer. Regrettably, she won't win, but she's a strong candidate and should poll well. The DUP are running Ian McCrea MLA for the third time in a Westminster poll. McCrea has been elected to the Assembly since the last Westminster election, when he outpolled Armstrong. It remains to be seen whether or not the TUV will harm McCrea significantly; they are running Walter Millar, the Chair of their Mid-Ulster branch (anecdotally, the largest constituency membership that party has). Millar is a former DUP member of Cookstown District Council and fought the 2007 Assembly elections on the UK Unionist Party ticket, when he pulled in that party's third best performance (1,210 1st preferences). The SDLP are running Cookstown councillor Tony Quinn (MLA and newly elected deputy leader Patsy McGlone presumably having decided to concentrate on the Assembly.) Quinn, as I say, may or may not take second place on a fragmented Unionist vote, but he won't seriously challenge McGuinness. Alliance are running in Westminster poll in Mid-Ulster for the first time since 1997, when they polled 460 votes. Ian Butler is a Fermanagh man who spent most of his working life in England. He'll be doing very well indeed to poll half that.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Private Sector

Another post on David Cameron's comments on Newsnight on Friday. I'll quite probably be back here over the past few days, but an answer to Jeffrey Donaldson's remarks on the Politics Show earlier today that those of us who plan to vote Conservative and Unionist on 6th May will be voting for funding cuts - I'll be voting for sensible efficiencies. Our public sector is bloated and I for one am unhappy with a massive, Soviet-style state economy. Only the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists are determined (and more importantly, will have the influence) to get Northern Ireland's private sector up and running. Watch the debate between Donaldson and Mike Nesbitt, who says it much better than I ever could...

Profile Number 2 - East Londonderry

Working my way around Northern Ireland in a semi-clockwise direction with the aim of finishing with North Antrim, we arrive at East Londonderry, primarily Unionist in political sentiment and consisting of the entire boroughs of Coleraine and Limavady, as well as two rural wards from Derry City Council (Banagher and Claudy), which have only just been attached to the constituency - their addition should do the SDLP vote in the area no harm. Formed in 1983 from the old Londonderry constituency, the seat was held by William Ross (UUP) until 2001, when he was defeated by Gregory Campbell - I well remember the comment at the time that Campbell's victory ironically meant things might get a tiny bit easier for David Trimble, as Ross was one of his most vocal opponents. East Londonderry formerly included most of Magherafelt District as well, but that transferred to Mid-Ulster in the 1995 boundary review.

I've always been a fan of East Londonderry; it's an absolutely beautiful area and Coleraine in particular is a wonderful little town where I've spent quite a bit of time. Gregory Campbell, the incumbent MP, has topped the poll at every Assembly election here since 1998 and wrested the seat from William Ross in 2001 by just over 2,000 votes, which increased to 7,700 in 2005. He remains a member of Derry City Council, and will be aiming for his third term in Westminster. David McClarty MLA has decided to run on this occasion and the Ulster Conservative and Unionist banner will be carried by Lesley Macaulay, a first time candidate with a strong background in community work in the area; Lesley is one of four female candidates we're running this time out. The Unionist fold is rounded off by the former MP, William Ross, who after a lifetime of UUP membership, joined with Jim Allister on the formation of the TUV and is currently that party's President. Ross was an MP for 27 years (he had previously been MP for Londonderry from 1974 until 1983, when he assumed the redrawn constituency). He is unlikely to win the seat, but has the capacity to poll well.

Nationalism is represented by the SDLP's Cllr Thomas Conway, a young farmer from the new wards in the constituency; he is a member of Derry City Council. Limavady councillor (and current Mayor) Cathal Hassan will fight the seat for Sinn Féin, and the ballot paper is rounded off by Alliance Coleraine councillor (and former police officer) Barney Fitzpatrick. Interesting to note that even Sinn Féin are slowly adopting a policy of not double jobbing and have opted not to run their MLA here, Billy Leonard.

It's the Economy, Stupid

Not a blog post per sé, but please see below an official statement from the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists campaign in relation to comments made by David Cameron on Newsnight on Friday. He's absolutely right; our public sector is ridiculously bloated - this is why we'll cut corporation tax and make Northern Ireland an enterprise zone...

Northern Ireland deserves better than being on window-ledge of UK economy
Conservatives and Unionists Newry & Armagh candidate Danny Kennedy has strongly endorsed David Cameron's call for action to grow the private sector in Northern Ireland and other regional economies across the United Kingdom.
Danny Kennedy said, "We unreservedly welcome David Cameron's commitment to grow the private sector in Northern Ireland. This is an economic imperative. Other political parties and leading economists have said this time and again. And it is the central objective of the devolved Executive's Programme for Government.
"We will not take lectures on this matter from a Labour government that declares itself 'neutral' on the matter of the Union, which has presided over the worst recession since the 1930s and which has created the largest ever peacetime deficit in British history. This government has absolutely zero moral authority on economic matters.
"Unlike others, however, Conservatives and Unionists will not merely talk about growing the private sector. A Conservative and Unionist government will be committed to delivering. By stopping Labour's job tax (Brown's planned rise in National Insurance), reducing corporation tax across the UK, bringing forward plans for the mechanism to reduce corporation tax further in Northern Ireland, and exempting from National Insurance the first 10 new employees in new companies during the first 2 years of a Conservative and Unionist government, we will get the United Kingdom working again, unleashing the spirit of enterprise that creates jobs and encourages innovation. This includes Northern Ireland. Unlike others, we are not prepared to see Northern Ireland relegated to the window-ledge of the UK economy.
"David Cameron has set an ambitious goal for a Conservative and Unionist government - to see the economies of Northern Ireland and other regions, such as the north-east of England, flourishing as the private sector grows. This ambition is shared by the people of Northern Ireland, who want to see jobs, opportunity and enterprise in this part of the United Kingdom. This is the agenda which the people of Northern Ireland can support on 6th May by voting Conservatives and Unionists"

Friday, 23 April 2010

Profile Number 1 - Foyle

In a hackneyed move, I'm going to start pulling together some brief constituency profiles (because no-one's ever done that before...). Hope you enjoy...first up is Foyle.

Foyle was created in 1983, when it was carved out of the old Londonderry constituency. The SDLP have been dominant here since then, with that party winning every election at every level here. Sitting MP and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is defending his seat. He faces a very strong challenge from Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson (Mitchel McLaughlin MLA having cleared off to South Antrim), but should just pull it off, albeit helped along by Unionist tactical votes. Foyle comprises most of Derry City Council, save two wards which have been transferred to East Londonderry. That in itself won't do Durkan any favours, as both wards would have been fairly SDLP-friendly. For obvious reasons, the constituency is named Foyle to avoid having to choose any variation of Londonderry or Derry.

The Unionist cause is being represented by Cllr Dr David Harding, a Scottish born vet (and Coleraine councillor) fighting the seat for the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists and Ald. Maurice Devenney, the DUP candidate, who is a farmer from just outside the city. He replaces William Hay MLA, the perennial DUP candidate in this part of the world, who can't run, given his position as Speaker of the Assembly. Electoral veteran Eamonn McCann is also in the mix, having been around in north-western politics since before the beginning of time, or so it seems. He has always pulled in a relatively sturdy vote, but has never been elected. Interestingly, he is running on the ''People Before Profit'' ticket, his old bandwagon of Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA), under which he fought the 2003 Assembly and 2005 General and Local Government elections in this constituency, appearing to have died the death. Alliance are running a chap named Keith McGrellis, who must be favourite to pick up the booby prize. Mind you, Alliance were strong in Londonderry once upon a time, with a number of representatives on the City Council.


I'm rather conscious of the fact that I always end up blogging on events at least 12 hours, if not more, after they happen. That's a time issue, unfortunately - not always possible to start committing my thoughts during the working day (and quite often, at evenings too). In this instance, I'm blogging almost 24 hours after the second Leadership debate and the first ever Northern Ireland leadership debate - here are a few meanderings on both. Feel free to disagree...

Firstly, let's go with the national debate. Was much better on Sky than on ITV (pity about the flippin' rolling news ticker at the bottom of the screen) and Adam Boulton committed himself well to the task. Interesting to note that both Cameron and Brown had upped their game from last week; Cameron in particular was much, much better and came across as a Prime Minister in waiting. Brown had a couple of good moments, but the evening belonged to Cameron and Clegg, who held his ground well, even if he did appear to be just a tad under pressure. That's understandable - in the space of a week, he's taken the third party in UK politics to serious contention in the opinion polls and has become easily the most popular politician in the country. He had a lot to prove, but in his defence, did rather well. Brown was, to a certain extent, an onlooker, and his quip about Cameron and Clegg being like his sons squabbling at bath time was quite good (I admit to a slight titter) but was obviously rehearsed. Thank goodness he didn't seem to ''agree with Nick'' so much last night.

I'm still worried, though. Cameron doesn't appear to have ''sealed the deal'' with the voting public and has only one more real chance to do so, at next Thursday evening's debate. This one will focus primarily on the economy, which in theory at least, is good news for Gordon Brown. He may have overseen the near collapse of the British economy with his tax and spend economics and pension fund raiding during his ten years at the Treasury, but he may still be regarded as being of reasonably sound judgement on the economy nonetheless. Certainly, it is ground he'll feel at home on. If Cameron is sensible, he will try to neutralise the Clegg threat by going for the Lib Dems' ever so slightly eccentric economic policies. Cameron is right - only a decisive victory will assist the UK at this difficult time for our economy. Clegg sounds new and fresh, yes, but a vote for him will ultimately be a vote for Gordon Brown. A Parliament where the Lib Dems end up as kingmakers (and it stands a much better chance of being them, or even the SNP, rather than the DUP) would be a short-lived fiasco. The guy has tremendous presentational skills, but a Lib Dem brokered deal isn't the way forward, either for the country, or, I would argue, for Clegg's party. The whiff of power may be intoxicating, but propping up a tired, discredited Labour administration in the event of a hung Parliament might leave them as 'whipping boys' at any subsequent General Election (and history has shown that hung Parliaments have a fairly short lifespan). On this score, my final thought is: it'll be interesting to see if David Dimbleby treats next week's programme as an extended version of Question Time or not...and also; to the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, etc; grow up. You lot weren't on the panel for a reason. You stand no chance of leading the UK. Simple, isn't it?

As for the Northern Ireland debate, I regret to say it din't exactly set my world on fire. It should have been a much better, much brighter event, but it really wasn't. In comparison with the Sky debate in Bristol, the UTV debate in Belfast was lacklustre, even a little frustrating at times. Poor old Margaret Ritchie didn't do at all well - reading from her notes at the start was a major error. She seemed to almost blend into the background as well with her red outfit and some of her answers to questions sounded a little laboured and in cases, almost hectoring. To be fair to her, she was probably nervous - after all, she's the shortest serving party leader and hasn't even been in politics as long as Reg Empey, Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams have. For the sake of the SDLP, I hope she improves given time...

Adams came across as very smug and rather cocky. Mind you, he and Sir Reg Empey were probably the best performers on the panel - and I hate to give Adams any credit for anything. His repeated attempts to deny IRA membership bring to mind the old quote: ''Methinks he doth protest too much.'' For Adams to deny IRA links is to take the electorate for fools - mind you, even if he were to admit to membership, it wouldn't do his vote in Belfast West any harm at all; witness Martin McGuinness's 10,000+ majority in Mid-Ulster, and he is openly proud of his 'service' within the IRA.

Robinson came across as rather hectoring and looked under a lot of pressure. I think Reg's comments about the £5 land deal struck a nerve, and he did seem to go off on one. Reg himself performed reasonably well, coming across fairly positively, sounding reasonable and making Valid points. Mind you, I feel he missed a couple of opportunities; when Robinson tried to imply that Reg would just be 'lobby-fodder' for a Conservative and Unionist Government if he were successful in South Antrim, that was Reg's chance to really sell the positive implications of the UCU pact, say that it would leave our MPs with considerably more influence that it would leave his, etc, etc. Just a pity that the parts were better than the whole. Jim Dougal, lovely man though he be, didn't really cut the mustard as host, though. Almost a pity that Mike Nesbitt is a candidate, he would have been very good...

Next national Leaders Debate is Thursday on BBC1, next Northern Ireland debate is Tuesday 4th May, also BBC1.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Lib Dems, Lib Dems Everywhere...

As a Tory supporting Unionist, I'm a tad perturbed by the strong showing the Liberal Democrats have received in the polls following Nick Clegg's performance on the first Leadership Debae last Thursday night. I watched the programme, along with 10 million others, and his performance was quite good, but I'm not sure it warrants the wave of enthusiasm it appears to have stirred. David Cameron started well (his opening statement was by far the best, but he plateaued, as it were, fairly quickly after that) and Brown just came across as slightly frightening.

I've always rather liked Clegg in some ways, as he is demonstrably more 'liberal' as opposed to 'social democrat' in political sentiment, but a vote for his party is not a good idea - the last thing the United Kingdom requires at this time is a hung Parliament, with all the opportunities for division, political rancour, instability, uneasy coalitions and every chance of another General Election within 12 months. That's what happened in 1974 (and even after the second election that year, Labour only had a majority of three, which vanished within two years.) No, this is a time for political stability, and while I may understand the desire in some quarters for a hung Parliament (witness the letters column in today's Times) I definitely don't buy it.

Of course, leaving all that aside, I'm genuinely a little concerned about what the Lib Dems would do if given their first sniff of power since 1945, when they were part of the wartime National Government, not least regarding their taxation and foreign policies, not to mention defence policy - in an unstable world, the United Kingdom, a major player on the world stage, key member of NATO and (whether we like it or not), the European Union, cannot be left undefended when the threat from a rogue state remains real. The Lib Dem factor is a dangerous one for our country at an uncertain time. Clegg may be likeable, Vince Cable may be an economic guru, but I still wouldn't vote for them. That, thankfully, is one element of American politics (the 'likeability' factor) which doesn't necessarily carry over to this side of the Atlantic. The polls showing the Lib Dems doing so well are just that - polls. The old SDP enjoyed a major bounce in the early 1980s - it finished a dismal third on election night, albeit only two percentage points behind the Labour Party at their absolute nadir. Let's keep our heads high for a while yet...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Battle Lost?

Journeying down the Upper Lisburn Rd earlier this evening, I see that Jimmy Spratt MLA has decided to get out and start climbing ladders. He has a few posters up - all fairly standard DUP graphics, but bearing the strap-line ''Unionists Unite.''

Only Sectarianism Some of the Time...

Interested to read on the greatly envied Slugger O'Toole earlier today that Gerry Adams (who, in a totally unrelated spin-off, has unaccountably taken to wearing waistcoats of late) approached Margaret Ritchie with the proposition of forming a pact covering the two marginals - Belfast South and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Both seats were, of course, held by the SDLP and Sinn Féin respectively in the last Parliament. You will also be aware that Margaret Ritchie has unilaterally rejected this proposal.

On the face of it, I suppose the suggestion was understandable enough - ''themmuns have cobbled an agreed candidate together, he might well take the seat, let's try and stop him.'' Unfortunately, that sits just a tad uneasily with the published comments of our Agriculture Minister, the former MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who stated that the people of that constituency should ''Unite to defeat the sectarian candidate.'' Hard to see as well, just while we're here, what road the Shinners are going down with their siren call to the Nationalists of Belfast North on their election webpage: ''If you are registered to vote in North Belfast, please use your vote on election day and vote Gerry Kelly X. We can do it!'' I could be wrong, but all sounds a little ''sectarian'' to me, all this encouraging unity to keep the Unionists out...

Monday, 12 April 2010

Justice at Last

So Northern Ireland has a Department of Justice with domestic control over the PSNI, Courts Service, Probation Board, etc for the first time since the former John Taylor, Lord Kilclooney, handed back his seals of office in 1972 when the old Stormont Parliament ceased to exist. As we all know, Alliance leader and South Antrim MLA David Ford is the new Minister. I suppose we could refer to the delightful expression that has characterised the whole Justice debate, ''political lifetime'' with David Ford's stated expressions (apologies, no links) that Alliance would provide a voice of principled opposition and wouldn't be interested in the Justice portfolio.

In all seriousness, and despite my reservations about the manner of Mr Ford's appointment, I wish him well. I like him personally, having met him a few times, and he will require the support of all politicians and parties (as outlined by Basil McCrea and Alban Maginness on Good Morning Ulster earlier today) in order to combat the threat Northern Ireland faces from the dissidents. We should all be thankful that no-one was injured in the blast in Holywood last night and ask what sort of idiocy drives people to such wanton vandalism? They certainly don't bring their republican utopia an inch closer by their terrorist and criminal actions. It is the duty of all law abiding citizens to offer any and all support possible to the PSNI and other authorities if they know anything at all about last night's blast.

As an aside, what are my views on the devolution of Justice powers? I think devolution was a rather premature step (although it would be wrong to say I was opposed to the concept; anything but. Just at this time and in these circumstances) and especially to an Executive which isn't always capable of carrying out its functions. That said, it's here now, and we all have to pull together to make Northern Ireland a safer place.

Trouble Down South

Can't help but notice that there's a clamour for a Unity candidate in the mould of the aforementioned Rodney Connor in Belfast South. I suppose that's understandable, given the circumstances that allowed Alasdair McDonnell to win the seat (on his seventh attempt) in 2005, as well as the seat's history, which frequently saw Robert Bradford and Martin Smyth running as the sole Unionist candidates, but I would argue that South Belfast is a rather different case to Fermanagh and South Tyrone. First of all, there doesn't appear to be a mass clamouring ('open letters' from Sandy Row District LOL and RBDC excepted) for a Unity candidate as there was in FST. My distinct lack of enthusiasm for McDonnell aside, at least he takes his seat in Westminster, and thirdly, it's a tad rich for the DUP to be calling for Unionist unity when their entry into a seat they had only ever contested once before (in the 1982 by-election after Bradford's murder, where no less than Dr William McCrea was the candidate) ensured the loss of the constituency to McDonnell in the first place.

Now, let's not beat about the bush - in the best manner of inter-party rivalry and competition (not to mention democracy) I would quite like to see McDonnell defeated; that, after all, is the art of electoral politics. The difficulty I have here is thus - there already is a Unionist candidate in the field with posters erected across the constituency and an active campaign on the ground - and it ain't Jimmy Spratt. I know Unionist Unity plays well on the doorsteps, but I don't buy it in this format, where the DUP appear to be interested in it only to save their own political bacon and, fundamentally, push a wedge into the Ulster Conservative and Unionist alliance. Find me a Unionist who doesn't believe that all in favour of the Union should be united. I always have. History has shown that a fragmented and disunited Unionism has delivered poorer and poorer dividends (although I'm fully aware that the governing Unionist Party of yore was not the monolith it appeared to be, it still provided a useful rallying point.) The DUP have dropped their old claim that ''Unionism is Uniting Around the DUP.'' I fully support Jimmy Spratt and his campaign for Unionist Unity - let him and the South Belfast DUP Association put their money where their mouth is, stand down and back Paula Bradshaw for the seat.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Ticket

Now that the Fermanagh and South Tyrone dilemma has apparently been sorted, we can turn our attention to the campaign at hand in the other seventeen constituencies. The news that Rodney Connor will, if elected, take the Conservative whip is welcome, but he will not be an Ulster Conservative and Unionist. All our candidates are, as everyone will know, committed to taking the Conservative whip if elected and promoting the cause of Northern Ireland at the heart of the next Government of the United Kingdom, formed by a resolutely pro-Union party. In order to fulfil that goal, it is important that our candidates measure up, and after the UUP completed its review process a couple of years ago, the candidate selection procedures were (thankfully) improved.

Of the seventeen individuals standing as official Ulster Conservative and Unionist candidates, seven are completely fresh faces, and most others have fought only one or two electoral battles (the obvious exceptions being Sir Reg Empey, Danny Kennedy and Fred Cobain). All are experienced in other avenues of life though, be it as a PR professional (Ian Parsley), former RUC Officer (Ross Hussey), veterinary surgeon (Dr David Harding) or newscaster (Mike Nesbitt). All are of course committed to single mandates, with the four MLAs in the mix on record as announcing that they will relinquish their posts in the Assembly if successful on 6th May.

You would naturally expect me to be a little biased (wouldn't you?) but all the candidates are highly capable and dedicated individuals. Most have an obvious record of commitment to their local communities (in one form or another) and to the party. All are very keen to serve their local communities at Westminster and all are dedicated to a 'new' politics. Above all, as you can see from a cursory glance, all represent change. Many of the UUP's older and more established names have served our party and the people of Northern Ireland exceptionally well through the years, but all recognise that they cannot go on forever. The fresh talent coming to the fore in this election will serve the party and Unionism generally well in the years ahead. Each of our candidates is unique and each has something to offer their prospective constituents. But all are determined to change the way politics works in Northern Ireland - we are fighting a positive campaign, not a dirty war littered with stunts or a sectarian headcount. I believe that the time is right for a new candidate ticket on a new platform. The Ulster Conservative and Unionist team will bring the change we all need.

Last Chance Saloon

As you would expect, very pleased to hear that Fermanagh and South Tyrone will have an opportunity to end nine years of absenteeism by voting for an agreed independent candidate. I don't know Rodney Connor at all, but the fact that he has received the unqualified support of both the UUP and DUP down there speaks for itself. I also gather that he is well thought of by Nationalists too. I am not so naive to claim that large numbers of Nationalists will vote for him, but it is good that an accommodation has been reached. Hopefully he can do the needful and we wish him all the very best. This is, in my opinion, the last chance a Unionist has of regaining Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Let's throw whatever we can at it and get that constituency represented in Westminster again.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

At Last!

Delighted that the phoney war is at an end and we're finally into the campaign proper. I imagine so too are many MPS, perhaps especially those who are standing down from Parliament!

I think it's fair to say that the outgoing Parliament has been one of the lowest regarded in the history of the United Kingdom. The expenses scandal, the cash for influence affair, the cash for peerages scandal a few years ago - all and more will have left their mark. It's obvious (to me at least) that Labour have had their day and overall, have squandered their near decade and a half in office. I'm old enough to remember the excitement, the jubilation, that surrounded Blair's victory that glorious May morning in 1997 - all things considered, it just didn't live up to the hype, and I fear you don't need me to rehearse all the failings of the past thirteen years!

It really is time for change. As you would expect, I believe, really genuinely believe, that the Conservative Party under David Cameron is the only vehicle for that change. The United Kingdom requires a new broom, but also requires stability in these times of economic uncertainly and general disillusionment; I believe that only Mr Cameron offers what is needed.

It's time for change here in Northern Ireland too. Time to give our people their first chance in decades of actually having influence on Government policy, to sit at the hear of the potential governing party, to copperfasten the Union play our full role in the Mother of Parliaments. Now is the time for Northern Ireland to send full time representatives to Westminster. Now is the time to put Northern Ireland at the heart of the United Kingdom.

South Antrim Musings

Hearing that the party leader Sir Reg Empey has been selected as the Ulster Conservative and Unionist candidate in South Antrim (I'm sorry, I despise the acronym UCUNF). As most will know by now, this follows a somewhat controversial selection process in that highly winnable constituency, after the frontrunner, serving Mayor of Antrim Adrian Cochrane-Watson, was deemed unsuitable by local Conservatives after statements he made four years ago surrounding homosexual couples renting rooms in his family run Bed and Breakfast.

Despite the discontent spread by the Watson affair, South Antrim is high on the target list, and it's not hard to see why. Rev Dr William McCrea MP MLA, former MP for Mid-Ulster and serving Magherafelt councillor (not to mention recorded Gospel artist and full time Minister at Calvary Free Presbyterian Church, Magherafelt) is defending a fairly slim majority of 3,448, and has, according to sources, never really found a true home in the constituency. Furthermore, the DUP didn't really set the world afire here in the 2007 Assembly elections either. Certainly, most people still automatically associate McCrea with Mid-Ulster, the seat he held for 14 years but lost in 1997, and Magherafelt, where he's been a local councillor since 1973 (and where his portrait was a feature on the Orange arch in the town centre until painted over with an image of Dan Winter's cottage in 2007). I won't beat about the bush - last week, I despaired as we wrangled about candidate selection in the public arena - I thought ''That's it, we've handed the seat to the DUP for another five years.'' Now I'm not so sure (or pessimistic).

Now, I am aware of the obvious; McCrea, a resident of Magherafelt, hasn't really gelled with the good folk of South Antrim whilst Sir Reg, an east Belfast boy born and bred, somehow has what it takes. My argument is that Sir Reg's candidacy is proof positive of just how serious the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists are taking this election. To take the party leader out of his long time electoral base in the east of the city, potentially out of a safe Assembly seat and Ministerial office, is a significant move indeed. Sir Reg is heavily bound up in the Ulster Conservative and Unionist process and if his candidacy is what it takes to win South Antrim back, so be it.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Let Battle Commence

Attended the UUP's Annual General Meeting in the Balmoral Conference Centre yesterday morning. I was disappointed that I hadn't managed to make it along to the fundraising dinner the night before, but I was genuinely heartened by the large turnout in the hall. I think it's fair to say there was a significant buzz in the conference centre as we all look forward to the election.

It has to be said that Sir Reg Empey, unopposed for the party leadership, was on fire as he tore into the DUP, into the Labour Government (with special emphasis on the Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward) and into the DUP's approaches on Unionist Unity.

Congratulations to the always impressive Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency for scooping the President's Cup (awarded to the Association who raises most money for the party) for possibly the zillionth time, and we wish them well in their efforts to unseat their absentee MP in the coming weeks. Congratulations also to the newly elected and re-elected party officers to serve their two year terms. It was also good to see most of the party's candidates on the stage at the very end for a final salute (as it were) from the leader and the other delegates. The candidates in question were Sandra Overend (Mid-Ulster), Mike Nesbitt (Strangford), Dr David Harding (Foyle), Lesley McCauley (East Londonderry), Ross Hussey (West Tyrone), Tom Elliott MLA (Fermanagh and South Tyrone), Danny Kennedy MLA (Newry and Armagh), Lady Daphne Trimble (Lagan Valley), Trevor Ringland (Belfast East), Bill Manwaring (Belfast West) and Rodney McCune (East Antrim). Justifiably, they got the biggest cheer of the day.

I think all of us in attendance went away feeling a little better about our political affiliations and looking forward to a decent election. The meeting certainly ticked all the right boxes in terms of boosting members' confidence and giving us an aim - placing Northern Ireland politics at the heart of the Union. That is what the link with the Conservative Party offers us and that is what has been missing from the local political scene for far too long. All we have to do now is get as many of the above as possible (not to mention the seven candidates who were not present for whatever reason) elected.

After the Lady Turned

So Lady Sylvia Hermon has announced her departure from the UUP and will fight North Down as an Independent (with or without the backing of the local DUP, but that's another post). This has arguably been the worst kept political secret in Northern Ireland politics for quite a while now and has been inevitable for approximately a year. Lady Hermon's views on the UUP's link with the Conservatives are well known and do not require further rehearsal here. I for one regret her decision greatly. We obviously didn't see eye to eye on this issue (or indeed on a few others) but I always liked and admired Lady Hermon nonetheless. Her reputation as a diligent constituency MP was second to none, and there is little I can do or say other than to echo Sir Reg Empey in thanking Lady Hermon for her contribution to Ulster Unionism in difficult times and in often crippling personal circumstances. I may not wish her well politically, but personally, she has nothing but my good wishes for the future.

The UCUNF candidate in that constituency is, of course, Ian Parsley, former Alliance Party European candidate and Deputy Mayor of North Down. I was very pleased to see Ian's move from the Alliance Party to UCUNF last September; as a young and articulate politician still in his first term as a councillor, and with several years experience in public relations and provincewide campaigning behind him, he is exactly the sort of politician Unionism needs (I don't think it's any great secret to say that Unionism's media image and PR skills are not what they could be). I know from personal experience that the interests of North Down and its constituents have no rival in his political life, and while launching a fight against such a demonstrably popular incumbent as Sylvia Hermon won't be a walk in the park, I'm confident that if anyone can do it, and win it, it's Ian.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Welcome one and all to half an ear. There are many, possibly too many, political blogs out there as it is. I don't really have a grand masterplan with this one, but I do want to take up a few topics of relevance to those with an interest in the Northern Ireland/UK political scene. I'll put my cards on the table - I'm a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and an enthusiastic supporter of our link with the Conservatives, (I'll try and explain why soon) but I don't want anyone to think that I'm going to be religiously toeing the party line all the time; I won't. I hope to blog various happenings over the impending General Election and maybe beyond, and if I can keep it all up and running beyond that, the range of topics covered may be broadened.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy what you read and can take something away from it. It may not always be as regular as clockwork, but I'll certainly try my best to post as often as possible. Feel free to comment if the mood takes you.