New proconsul has much to learn

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

We have had some pretty ropey proconsuls here in the last thirty-eight years. Think of Humphrey Atkins, one of Lady Hacksaw’s favourites. Merlyn Rees was another dope. He was appointed because he was a mate of the prime minister, Jim Callaghan. He spent most of his time here wringing his hands. Paddy Devlin said Rees was always wrestling with his conscience. “The trouble was the result was always a draw.” The signals from the latest one are not good.

As shadow northern secretary, he displayed an impressive level of naivety and ineptitude. His lack of political judgment has been breathtaking. His first few hours in post have indicated that he will continue in the same vein. He opens his mouth only to change feet. Normally an incoming proconsul has the wit to follow civil service advice to keep his mouth shut until he has read himself into his brief. Not this guy, clearly he thinks he knows better.

He has obviously ingested the whole Daily Mail/Sun line on the north. In his mind, south Armagh constitutes “the deepest wildest” parts of the north. He realised what he had said only when confronted by journalists and tried to make amends by saying Crossmaglen has “the best bread in the north, I always buy wheaten bread”. Groan, The condescension. The crassness. Soon he’ll be saying “some of my best friends are Roman Ketholicks”.

They’re not, His best friends are orange unionists. In all the years since the office of northern secretary was established none of them has so dearly identified himself with one section of the community,Worse, None has meddled in northern politics to try to disadvantage nationalists as this guy has, He will therefore never be trusted no matter how much smarm he turns on.

His meddling was entirely cynical. It may well have been at the behest of his boss ‘new politics’ Cameron, whose politics here ha ve been very old indeed and therefore of a distinctly orange hue.

Faced with the prospect of a hung parliament since it was obvious from last year that the British electorate didn’t trust him, Cameron decided to maximise support and he targeted unionists through their fawning leader Sir Reg never-to-be-MP. However, just to be certain unionists wouldn’t cancel each other out our new proconsul disgracefully hosted secret talks with the DUP at Hatfield House in January to talk about ‘unionist unity’.

It didn’t matter one bit that dalliance with the DUP exposed the hypocrisy of a new non-sectarian politics the unionists’ new proconsul wittered on about. Didn’t matter it meant a couple of Catholic recruits duped into joining the nonsensical UCUNF walked. No. As long as there was a chance of defeating an SDLP MP and a Sinn Fein MP and replacing them with unionists nothing else mattered. To put it in the more indiscreet language of his colleague, one of the political undead, Ken Clarke “in the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society”. Quite. Conservatives later said Clarke meant the DUP. So that’s OK then.

In their desperation to win an overall majority, the Conservatives were prepared to destabilise the politics of the north. The unionists’ new proconsul was one of the main actors in this project. In the words of Martin McGuinness, who never knowingly avoids a cliche, the new appointee is on “a steep learning curve”. He certainly is. The first basic he has to learn is that there are two communities here and he has to treat them equally. So far he has never even acknowledged the existence of nationalists. It is therefore impossible for him to take account of their susceptibilities.

Even if he did, however, and even if he successfully climbed McGuinness’s learning curve, which he so far shows no ability to do, he should never be allowed to forget that he is the first British politician since Bonar Law to unashamedly play the orange card to advance the fortunes of the Conservative Party. Even when he was down to a majority of one in 1993 and 1994, John Major didn’t stoop as low as this guy.

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