It’s been a couple of weeks since the Cameron Direct roadshow came to Belfast and set up its tent in the Stormont Hotel to allow members of the public hear and challenge the Conservative leader, before The Thing With No Name was cheered on at the Ulster Unionist Party conference across town.
For those with questions unable to be asked on the morning, there was an opportunity to scribble them on a postcard (not a lot of room) or to email them in (less constrained).
This morning, the replies came through by email. I’ve interwoven my naïve questions (from my position "outside the political bubble") and the Cameron Direct team’s replies ...
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I didn't get the chance to ask any of the questions scribbled on my post-it notes on the morning, but according to the postcards you left on the seats, I can email them in and they'll get a reply. (I suspect David Cameron's three-year-old-leader's-eyeballs will never see the questions submitted ... but someone might generate a reply on his behalf!)
He got off very lightly at Stormont when it came to Northern Ireland issues. A brief mention of health and that was about it!
You point out that very few “Northern Ireland issues” were raised at the Cameron Direct meeting. This totally vindicates our view that the constitutional issue which so dominated and polarised Northern Ireland politics for decades has now been settled, subject to the consent principle. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland outside the political bubble are worried and want answers on taxation, the economy, fuel duty, current economic crisis, pensions, social issues and business regulations. All of these are within the competence of Westminster politicians and they were the sort of issues raised at the Cameron Direct meeting.
Anyway, my potential questions ran as follows. Any answers gratefully received!
1. You talk a lot about Northern Ireland returning to normal politics. Do you agree that this week's decision to extend the decommissioning deadline by a year does nothing to normalise politics, and instead rewards the procrastinating loyalist paramilitaries, giving them an extra 12 months to hide behind their façade and the less-than-lawful activities that continue on the edges of their organisations?
1. There is no place in today’s Northern Ireland for any organisation to hold on to illegal weapons. The government has proposed a final extension of the decommissioning amnesty and will use their majority to get this through the Statutory Instrument debate. Our frontbench team are absolutely clear that all illegal weapons should be handed in as soon as possible but we will finalise our line on the Statutory Instrument debate once we have seen the full details of the Government’s proposals.
2. Will the Conservative's partnership with one local party not be more likely to destabilise the fragile political relationships within the NI Executive and Stormont Assembly than promote "normal politics"? If you win the next General Election, how will you prevent accusations that the other parties will make that the Ulster Unionists are using and abusing their inside knowledge of the government for their own political gain?
2. The Conservative Party in government will never side with one part of the community over another. We will govern in the best interests of all the people. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been settled by a clear majority of voters in referenda on both sides of the border. Frankly, it is a cop-out to suggest that Northern Ireland is permanently divided and the Government's role in perpetuity is to simply hold the ring as an "honest broker". It is an unacceptably pessimistic prescription. We have a more positive vision and are determined to play our part in developing a more normal society and real politics in Northern Ireland.
3. Under The New Force, how can you square the Ulster Unionist's policy of continuing to support Northern Ireland's grammar schools and using the Eleven Plus for selection with the Conservative education policy that applies to the rest of the UK. (And can such a system ever be fair when it allows NI's grammar schools to end up filling their spare places with pupils gaining lower academic results, at the cost of secondary schools who suffer from "falling rolls" while the grammar schools remain full.)
3. We have consistently said that where local people wish to continue with academic selection, we will respect their wishes. Both the UUP and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland support academic selection. We respect that education is a devolved matter. It is for local politicians to deal with falling school rolls.
4. If you're in power and the Northern Ireland Assembly suffers its next wobble, will you put your hand in your pocket as quickly as the current Labour government when the main parties rush to Downing Street to ask for cash to satisfy their latest whims and a bribe to go back to work at Stormont?
4. In 2006/7 public expenditure was £18.7 billion of which £11.5 billion was raised locally in taxes, leaving a gap of £7.2 billion, to be provided by the Treasury. The Public sector represents about two thirds of GDP and 29% of the workforce are public sector employees. It will be a priority for a Conservative government to bring in imaginative measures to boost the private sector in Northern Ireland. Given the dire state of the public finances that we are likely to inherit from the Labour government, everyone will understand that we are in no position to make any spending commitments.
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