29 April 2010 Edition

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Vacancy at the top?

BY LAURA FRIEL

WRITING in the Belfast News Letter, Alex Kane predicts that Sir Reg Empey views a seat in Westminster in the same light as the former SDLP leader Mark Durkan: as a soft landing to retiring from politics here. But, win or lose, Kane sees no future for Empey.
“If Sir Empey wins South Antrim, then he will stand down as a minister and MLA, which will require a new de facto leader, in the Assembly at least. And if he doesn’t win and the UCUNF project goes belly-up, then he will probably be forced out as leader,” writes Kane.
Former UUP leader David Trimble, who incidentally nailed his own retirement by accepting a title and an accompanying seat in the British House of Lords as Baron Trimble, envisages an alternative scenario. According to Baron Trimble, Empey can expect a seat in the British Cabinet, courtesy of Conservative Party leader David Cameron, if Empey wins in South Antrim and if the British Tories manage to form a government.
During the first televised Leaders’ Debate, on UTV, DUP Leader Peter Robinson scoffed at the notion, suggesting the UUP’s alignment with the British Conservatives is less likely to lead to crumbs from the Big Table and more likely to result in Empey being forced to “troop through the lobbies to vote for spending cuts in Northern Ireland”. “I leave you to decide which is more likely,” Robinson suggested to the audience.
Almost on cue, David Cameron announced that when it comes to cuts and job losses in the public sector, top of his target list is the North of Ireland.
During a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, Cameron said that in some places “the state accounts for a bigger share of the economy than it did in countries in the old eastern bloc of communist Europe”.
Questioned by Paxman as to where exactly he was referring, Cameron replied, “Well, the first one I think I would pick out is Northern Ireland.” The proverbial cat was out and the UUP’s rivals lost no time taking advantage of Empey’s discomfort.
“The man who the Ulster Unionists said would stand up for the Union is picking on Ulster for additional cuts in services and jobs,” said DUP leader and candidate Peter Robinson.
“Let’s be clear, there is only one part of the Tory policy that is definite, early cuts, and David Cameron made it clear those cuts would be targeted at Northern Ireland,” said Robinson.

RUG PULLED FROM REG
But politicking apart, it was clear that the rug had been pulled from under the feet of the UUP. In the middle of an election campaign, Cameron had showed no regard for the consternation his comments would cause the UUP.
Empey has been running his campaign around the notion that he has the ear of the leader of the British Conservative Party - the only problem is Cameron clearly isn’t listening.
And if Empey is hoping a hung parliament would necessarily enhance his position vis-à-vis the British Government, there is scant evidence to suggest that will be the case.
“There is little historical evidence that a weak national [British] government can be easily exploited to our advantage,” admitted former communications director for the UUP, Alex Kane.
“Between 1974 and 1979, when the UUP often came to the rescue of a minority Labour government, they got precious little in return and even when they shifted towards Thatcher in the run-up to the 1979 election she quickly abandoned the manifesto pledge,” said Kane.

LADY IN RED
 When Margaret Ritchie became leader of the SDLP she said she wanted unionists to be able to “look me in the eye and trust me”. Unfortunately, with Maggie’s ever-shifting gaze, it’s proving remarkably difficult for anyone to look her in the eye. During the UTV Leaders’ Debate, it was difficult to see her at all, camouflaged as she was in red on red.
But while in relation to unionists Ritchie is hoping for trust, within her own party she expects obedience. It’s a trait she shares with another Maggie and something senior members of the SDLP clearly resent.
In Ritchie’s first interview as the newly-elected leader of the SDLP, when she arbitrarily refused questions from the media and stormed off up the great stairway in Stormont, she left Alisdair McDonnell barely able to mask his fury.

FIASCO
The launch of the SDLP manifesto at a print factory last week proved to be another fiasco. With the SDLP leader and her team appearing head-to-toe in protective clothing it was hard to resist the caption, “all dressed up and still nowhere to go”.
This time it was the media’s turn to be furious. Journalists responded with utter disbelief when they realised they too were required to don white polythene coats, hairnets and hats. And soon the electorate were getting a glimpse of the SDLP leader’s high-handed style.
While out canvassing, Ritchie was repeatedly asked why the SDLP was refusing to co-operate in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency, particularly after Sinn Féin stood aside in South Belfast. ‘Because I’m right’ was the crux of her response.

MEDIA INTRUSION
Peter Robinson hasn’t been having an easy time on the doorsteps of his constituency either. With a standing 19% majority, it is inconceivable that Robinson won’t be returned as MP for East Belfast. But rumours of discontent on the doorsteps has been further fuelled by the DUP’s refusal to allow the media to accompany Robinson as he canvasses support.
Meanwhile, at least one-sharp eyed Sinn Féin voter was perplexed when a letter from local MLA Paul Maskey appeared in the Irish News and referred to “Northern Ireland”. Was this the thin edge of the wedge? A correction by the Irish News a few days later put his mind at rest. The Irish News admitted the word “Northern” did not appear in the original letter and was inserted by their staff.

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