Thursday, 24 July 2008

Is This a Northern Irish Breakthrough?

My former Minister, from when I worked at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey and Conservative leader David Cameron have today issued what may be an historic statement. The will set up a "joint working group to explore the possibilities of closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland. That working group will report to us in the autumn." Possibly
paving the way for full involvement in the mainland parties in Northern Ireland.

While there is the Northern Ireland Branch of the Liberal Democrats and Labour has allowed Northern Irish members full rights since 2003 none of the main UK Parties have made much of an impact in Northern Politics against the sectarian nature of the recent past. One exception may be the one term that the Conservatives were the largest group on North Down Borough Council but then my home area has always been a little bit maverick. Labour and the Conservatives both had representation, through the top up system, at the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement but failed to gain representation at the first Assembly Elections that followed. The Lib Dem NI Branch has not been actively seeking election while the Alliance Party has been seen as a more credible Liberal voice in the province.

Of course in typical Tory parlance they have set up another exploratory so like most of their policy aims nothing is firmed up yet. But is it the time? Is Northern Ireland ready to throw off the sectarian politics that have existed for decades?

When Northern Ireland first gained devolved power as an insider on the civil service side I was impressed at how the local politicians actually really relished the change to start talking about and dealing with the real bread and butter issues. They no longer had to posture for the sake of posturing, they had power to make changes and they wanted to use it wisely. In that respect the politicians I'm sure are still ready. It is the voters that have often inherited their voting patterns based not so much on policy but on religious affiliation where the issues may lie.

Again there was a willingness when the Assembly first gathered to give this a go, however the last elections did show a move towards the extremes yet again, which at the time I saw as a worrying sign. Personally I'd be glad to see the end of being a side show at Westminster but being able for Northern Irish people to fully engage as every other part of the UK can.

I will however, as with so much, wait and see what comes out of the Cameron started working group, nothing is really set in stone just yet.

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