Wednesday 21 February 2018

Owen Paterson slammed after ‘ill-advised’ comments on Stormont administration

Deric Henderson

FIRST Minister Peter Robinson today accused Secretary of State Owen Paterson of making "ill advised" comments on the future of the Stormont administration.

He claimed: "He has a growing track record of making partisan political points in an attempt to bolster his latest party political project in Northern Ireland."

Mr Robinson's attack followed an announcement by Mr Paterson to publish a consultative paper making the case for the establishment of an official opposition at Parliament Buildings, Belfast where the SDLP and Ulster Unionists have been critical of the two dominant parties inside the powersharing executive - the Democratic Unionist Party and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness's Sinn Fein.

The First Minister said the Secretary of State had given the impression he was most comfortable when publicly attacking the executive and local politicians.

Mr Robinson said: "We would all like to see more progress on a number of issues, including reform of the government structures, but Mr Paterson knows full well that headline grabbing will do nothing to bring it about.

"I have long argued for reformed structures but such fundamental changes will require maturity amongst all involved."

The Stormont coalition was far from perfect, he said, but Mr Paterson should look at the two party coalition in Westminster which Mr Robinson claimed, was stumbling from one crisis to the next and where the programme for government lay in tatters.

Many within Northern Ireland would consider the Secretary of State's comments as ill advised, and compared to the ongoing open warfare at Westminster, the executive at Stormont was relatively stable.

Mr Robinson added: "Mr Paterson has a growing track record of making partisan political points in an attempt to bolster his latest party political project in Northern Ireland.

"I need hardly remind him that his recent local political alliances have all ended in failure having been completely rejected by the electorate.

"I trust that in the future, this partisan Secretary of State will direct his energies to matters where he can assist Northern Ireland rather than squander his time seeking sound bites."

Earlier Mr McGuinness criticised Mr Paterson for a "clumsy and ill-thought out" speech in Dublin where hit out at the executive over the delayed publication of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy (CSI) which is aimed a bettering community relations and integration. The Ulster Unionist Party has now withdrawn from the all party consultative process.

Mr McGuinness said he and Mr Robinson had already issued a joint statement saying that agreements had been reached on a number of policy areas. It was ironic Mr Paterson chose to criticise the executive on failing to deliver on issues like CSI on the day after that statement was made.

He claimed: "Either Mr Paterson is so detached from politics here that he missed this statement, or he chose simply to ignore it for his own political reasons."

Mr Paterson had said politics in Northern Ireland was more stable than at anytime in over a generation, but more needed to be done regarding a shared future.

"For all the progress in recent years, Northern Ireland remains at many levels a deeply divided society".

Difficult decisions lay ahead and they could not have a Northern Ireland in which everything was carved up on sectarian grounds.

Mr Paterson said he would be publishing a consultation paper making the case for the establishment of an official opposition as well as reducing the size of the 108 member Assembly and fixing the length of Assembly terms.

He said that consultation should include questions over whether "it is desirable in principle for the institutions to move to a more normal system of government and opposition and, if so, how this might be achieved".

Such changes could happen over time but must have widespread support across the community and be consistent with inclusive government and in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

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