London was warm and clammy. Michelle Gildernew and this blog flew there early on Wednesday morning. After the usual torturous journey through its crowded streets we joined Martin McGuinness for a meeting with the new British Secretary of State Owen Patterson in W2, one of the meeting rooms just off Westminster Hall in Westminster.
Martin was there from the previous day when he and Peter Robinson had taken part in a meeting with David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as well as the First Minister of Scotland and Wales. The focus of their meeting was the expected budget cuts. They didn’t get the clarity from the British government that had been predicted. Apparently the new coalition government is still working out the details of its imminent budget.
Before the meeting Martin’s exasperation was clear when he said; “Cutting frontline services is not a necessity – it is a political decision being taken by a British cabinet full of millionaires.”
In the meeting Martin made clear our determination to try and protect frontline services and ensure that the public sector is not sacrificed.
But ultimately the north’s budget is a block grant which comes from London. The Barnett formula, which determines this grant does not accurately reflect social need in the north; nor does it take account of decades of under funding of public services or the lack of investment in jobs that is a legacy of direct rule from London. The north is also emerging out of decades of conflict.
None of this is reflected in the British government’s plans. That means the battle against the cuts must be all the more vigorous.
All of this is an argument for fiscal powers being transferred to the Assembly and Executive from Westminster so that we can manage and shape our economic strategy for recovery more effectively and tailor it more efficiently to our needs.
We raised this vital matter in our first meeting of the day which was with Owen Patterson and spoke to him about the suggestion he made during the election campaign of lowering Corporation Tax as well as the possibility of devolving more real powers on finance from Westminster.
Patterson made a major mistake when he joined in an effort some months ago to secure a form of unionist unity and when that failed he then engaged in discussions with the Ulster Unionists, the DUP and Orange Order to agree unionist unity candidates in local constituencies. In the case of Fermanagh South Tyrone that saw a Tory candidate trying to unseat Michelle and losing by those famous four votes.
Now that he is in Government the British Secretary of State cannot afford any more mistakes like this. He needs to be on a speedy learning curve.
Our conversation ranged over matters still outstanding from the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, including the very important issue of a Bill of Rights.
We were told that the Coalition British government would ‘not resile’ from the agreements that had been made and which both the Tories and Lib Dems had supported in opposition. But he then told us that they were of the view that there wasn’t really a commitment within it to a Bill of Rights for the north. The Conservative manifesto position was for UK Bill of Rights with some sections dealing specifically with the six counties.
We disagreed and argued strongly for the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to be adhered to. But Mr Patterson seems poised to set this to one side.
This is clearly going to be an issue of contention between us. The fact is that the Good Friday Agreement specifically states, under ‘Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity’, that there will be a Bill of Rights for the north. You can’t say you will stand by the Agreement and then break a fundamental commitment contained within it.
I raised with Owen Patterson our core objective of a united Ireland – which he said he was opposed to. But he accepted that if we succeeded in winning majority support for this in the north that the British Coalition government would honour the commitment of the Good Friday Agreement and legislate for it.
We also discussed the imminent publication of the Saville Report. This blog told the British delegation that it is unacceptable that the British government will receive advance sight of the Saville Report 24 hours before publication and well in advance of families bereaved by the events of that day.
This blog also reminded Owen Patterson that he had agreed to meet the families of the 11 Ballymurphy victims of an earlier shoot-to-kill action by the same Paras who carried out Bloody Sunday. He again agreed to do the meeting as soon as it could be arranged.
A significant part of the 80 minute meeting was spent discussing our concerns about the infiltration and manipulation of so-called dissident groups by the British security agencies and the manner in which some elements of these forces appeared to be using agents to try and subvert the peace process. We drew attention to a number of contemporary examples of this. And we have agreed to meet again on this.
After the meeting with Patterson the Sinn Féin group held a briefing with a number of British MP’s, many of them new and some from the coalition partners. It was a good session held under the watchful eye of a painting of former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a room named after him.
And then it was over to the office of the acting Leader of the Opposition. Harriet Harman is deputy Leader of the Labour Party and until they elect a new leader sometime in September she is the boss. She was accompanied by Shaun Woodward the former British Secretary of State and Paul Goggins another former Direct Rule Minister.
It was an interesting meeting not least for the insights it gave into the process of transition from the Labour government to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. The role of Labour in opposition is still important but the future direction of Labour policy on this and on many other matters will be determined by whoever emerges as its new leader.