There are times you watch a football or rugby match on television and wonder if the studio pundits were watching the same game you were. There are times you enter into a discussion and wonder if the other person is discussing the same issue you are. And then there are times you read Observer articles referring to meetings you attended and wonder if those providing the information were even in the same country when the meeting took place…
Henry McDonald is a journalist I have long admired, but his article in the Ireland edition of today’s Observer does not even hit the corner flag. This was a confidential meeting, but since it has now been discussed in public (including on the blogosphere), it is fair to use this forum to correct each and every aspect of it.
Firstly, Friday was an exceptionally important day in Northern Ireland politics and Owen Paterson was involved in private talks with local party leaders designed to ensure the talks over devolution of justice kept progressing and the institutions remained in place. Despite this, he found time to host a meeting of all the Conservatives’ prospective candidates at which seven, including myself, were present (not three, as the article indicates).
Secondly, we had confirmation by three nominees at the meeting of their intention to withdraw as prospective candidates as the deadline for final selection of candidates had not been met. For professional people who had entered into a process with no guarantees about the final outcome, it was entirely understandable that they wanted their futures resolved so that their careers would not be kept on hold indefinitely. It was noted that, given the fluid political situation (which included the possibility of an intervening Assembly Election), no guarantees could be given either on the date of selection or the nominees likely to be finally selected. As a result, they stated their intention to withdraw as prospective candidates, but they were content to remain as party members – nothing was ever mentioned about it having anything to do with talks with Unionist parties.
Thirdly, there is reference in the article that the meeting was about a DUP-UUP carve-up. This was not even raised.
Finally, it is noted for some reason that Peter McCann’s departure “in particular” is a severe blow to the promise of a Conservative and Unionist candidate in every seat. In fact, once Strangford selects its Ulster Unionist nominee, every constituency will have a Conservative or Ulster Unionist prospective candidate (or both). These withdrawals therefore make no difference to the simple fact that there will be a Conservative and Unionist candidate in each of the 18 seats.
It is well known that there is a small minority of people in both parties unhappy at the link-up, and that is their right. However, the facts of the matter are quite simple. Three nominees stated their intention to withdraw on the basis that they could not wait around indefinitely for the selection process (which has indeed taken longer than intended) to be completed – a process entered into by all of us with no guarantees.
That they have withdrawn this time around just as the process nears its completion is particularly unfortunate, but it certainly does not preclude them from standing at future elections. The fact remains that both the Conservative and Ulster Unionist Parties are on the up, and that the people of Northern Ireland will have 18 Conservative and Unionist candidates to vote for at the forthcoming General Election – candidates from all backgrounds who stand for a genuinely new type of politics as well as a much needed change of government.