Owen Paterson is new Direct Ruler
Owen Paterson is new Direct Ruler

Owen Paterson, the Conservative spokesman on the North of Ireland, has been appointed the North’s new ‘Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’ in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s new coalition cabinet.

Martin McGuinness recalled how Paterson had previously held secret ‘pan-unionist’ talks with unionists to bolster pro-union parties in the region.

At the start of the year, while the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein were locked in negotiations to secure the peace process, it emerged that Mr Paterson had hosted secret talks with the DUP and UUP on securing unionist gains at election time.

“Obviously people are very conscious of the fact that there were secret meetings taking place in England, presided over by Owen, with the unionist parties, and that it was about effectively trying to unseat, if we are to be crude about it, (Sinn Fein’s) Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and (SDLP’s) Alastair McDonnell in South Belfast,” Mr McGuinness said on Thursday.

“And I think that now that he has a new responsibility as a minister, I think he needs to re-evaluate whether or not that was a sensible course of action to be involved in.”

Two years ago the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists announced plans to field joint candidates in Northern Ireland elections, though they ended the latest campaign without winning a single seat.

Mr Cameron initially promised to field candidates in each of the North’s 18 general election constituencies. His party rejected DUP calls for unionist unity candidates in marginal seats to prevent nationalist victories, with the Conservatives branding the proposal as sectarian.

But at the start of the year it emerged that Mr Paterson had hosted secret talks on unionist unity between the UUP and DUP. It subsequently emerged that both unionist parties also held discussions under the auspices of the Orange Order.

During the Westminister election campaign it emerged that the Conservatives, UUP and DUP were standing aside in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to give a clear run to unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor.

But the tactic to unseat Ms Gildernew failed when she won the tight contest by the margin of only four votes.

The DUP failed in further attempts to secure a unionist unity candidate in South Belfast to unseat the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell, who comfortably held the seat.

Mr Paterson is to meet the leaders of the parties in the North tomorrow [Friday].

The Saville report would be published “as soon as we can”, Mr Paterson said on Thursday.

“I would like to see it published in a measured, careful way so that it can be considered with all the seriousness deserved for a report which I understand is five-and-a-half thousand pages long and cost 191 million pounds,” he said.

“I hope at the end of it some long-term good can come of it.”

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