FIRST MINISTER ARLENE FOSTER

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Arlene Foster MLA with her predecessor as First Minister and DUP Leader Peter Robinson MLA at the Balmoral Show in May 2015  Photo: COPYRIGHT Michael Fisher

It was a chance encounter in May last year at the 2015 Balmoral Show at the Maze when I passed the DUP stand. I came across the then party leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA and then Minister for Finance and Personnel Arlene Foster MLA, who had taken over the portfolio a few days earlier at the start of that week. I had not seen either for a while and both readily agreed to have their photograph taken, which I used in an article I wrote for the Northern Standard. The way Peter put his arm around Arlene’s shoulder was perhaps an indication that later in the year she would become his preference for a successor when he announced he was standing down. Both were in very good mood at the time and I was fortunate to get a picture of them in an informal setting, rather than an office or the Assembly chamber.

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NI First Minister Peter Robinson MLA with Michael Fisher at Balmoral Show in May 2015

Arlene Foster then turned the tables and very kindly offered to take a photo of myself with the then First Minister, proving her media skills! During our brief encounter, I did not ask Mr Robinson whether he was thinking about Arlene as a successor at that stage. But ten days later he was admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack and was fitted with a heart stent. I assure you the timing was coincidental!

Arlene Foster grew up in Roslea, County Fermanagh, just across the border from Scotstown in County Monaghan. Her father, a small farmer, was a full-time RUC member and was injured in an IRA gun attack at their home in 1979. As a teenager in 1988, she survived an IRA bomb in Lisnaskea, which exploded under her school bus while it was being driven by a part-time UDR soldier.

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Arlene Foster MLA then Minister for Enterprise with DUP MEP Diane Dodds in Clogher       Photo: Copyright Michael 

A qualified solicitor and former member of the Ulster Unionist Party, Arlene Foster has always been very courteous in dealing with media requests for interviews. I wish her well in her new post, in which she will share responsibilty for government in Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. She has written an article for today’s Belfast Telegraph in which she outlines some of her priorities. She says she wants to lead the North in the right direction and ensure that children grow up in a better Northern Ireland than she did.

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DIANE DODDS MEP CAP ROADSHOW

Arlene Foster MLA and Diane Dodds MEP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Arlene Foster MLA and Diane Dodds MEP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Apart from weddings and large-scale social events, Corick House Hotel in Clogher has hardly ever been so packed for a public meeting. Around 250 farmers from the Clogher Valley and Fermanagh attended the second in a series of roadshows on CAP reform, organised by the DUP Member of the European Parliament, Diane Dodds. They had expected around 80 and some latecomers had to sit outside the room to follow the proceedings. One of the first people I met at the hotel was my colleague from the Guild of Agricultural Journalists (Northern Ireland), Brian Donaldson of the Impartial Reporter. Now if only our William Carleton Society summer school in August (which we were planning tonight at Corick) could attract such a crowd this year to the same room…

The MEP was joined by senior DARD officials, who outlined the detail around how the new Common Agricultural Policy will be implemented in Northern Ireland. The meetings will move on to Templepatrick, Portadown and Portrush over the next two weeks and consist of a question and answer session which allows an opportunity for individual concerns to be addressed. One farmer had concerns about the effect of flooding on good farming land caused when waters rose up to fifteen feet in the Colebrooke River. He wondered if it would affect his grant application, if an inspector from the Department came around to check on the extent of his land immediately after the flooding. The answer involved something about force majeure coming into play.

Diane Dodds MEP

Diane Dodds MEP

Announcing the meetings, Diane Dodds said: “As someone who has been heavily involved in the reform of the common agricultural at a European level and one of its greatest critics the outworkings are now reaching farmers on the ground. I have organised in conjunction with DARD, a range of meetings to update and clarify for the implementation of the policy will take effect in Northern Ireland.

“The reform of the common agricultural policy will be the main emphasis for these meetings, given the upcoming single application deadline in May 2015 and ongoing decisions which will ultimately have a lasting impact on the farm business for years to come.

“During the course of the meetings, there will be a presentation on the upcoming requirements of the new CAP scheme, and within this a wide range of topics will be covered, including the basic payment scheme, active farmer definition, eligibility criteria, greening, young farmer and national schemes, cross compliance and the farm business improvement scheme.

Diane Dodds MEP addressing the packed room at Corick House Hotel Photo: © Michael Fisher

Diane Dodds MEP addressing the packed room at Corick House Hotel Photo: © Michael Fisher

“I also recognise that farmers have individual questions and I will ensure that a question and answer session is available. I want to provide an opportunity for farmers to have as much information as possible in a timely fashion to make decisions and prepare for the upcoming changes. DARD has now received clarity and made decisions on the majority of the reformed CAP implementation and have produced guidance. Hence why I feel this is a unique opportunity to gain additional clarity.

“I would strongly urge the farming community to make use of this opportunity, which will help prepare for the single application form in May 2015,” she said.

A farmer asks a question about flooding at the CAP roadshow Photo: © Michael Fisher

A farmer asks a question about flooding at the CAP roadshow Photo: © Michael Fisher

Diane Dodds was joined at the event by her party colleagues Lord Morrow and the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster. The DUP point out that agriculture is the back-bone to much more than the Northern Ireland economy; it is the fabric of local communities. Agri-food is a key driver of the NI economy. It sustains an estimated 100,000 jobs and contributes some £5 billion in sales. It is also a key exporter of produce, with some £2.6 billion in external sales.

CLONTIBRET ‘INVASION’

ClontibretIt was hardly an ‘invasion’ in the true military sense. Nothing like the 200,00 Allied forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 or the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 or of Poland in 1939. Yet Peter Robinson’s nocturnal excursion along with a group of 150 loyalists across the border into the quiet County Monaghan village of Clontibret on August 7 1986 was dubbed an ‘invasion’ by some sections of the media.

It was more like a sortie, a raid, an incursion or an infiltration. His intention was to show what he believed were the gaps in cross-border security, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Yet it was the RUC who tipped off the Gardaí about his plans, according to Stormont papers recently released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Historian Éamon Phoenix who has researched them says that a note from a Northern Ireland Office official from the Political Affairs Division to the British Ambassador to Dublin refers to about 150 loyalists, “some wearing paramilitary uniforms and carrying cudgels” entering Clontibret.

They daubed the slogan “Ulster is Awakening” on a Garda station and from what I myself remember of the day in question, on some walls including that of a Church of Ireland school. The crowd also injured two Gardaí.

The BBC reports that the note said: “The RUC’s action in tipping off the Gardai during the night of 6-7 August about the incursion by Peter Robinson and his loyalist thugs was also warmly appreciated in Dublin, according to Michael Lillis [of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs].”

The NIO official who wrote the note told the ambassador: “We have done our little bit here by holding Irish hands in the [Anglo-Irish] Secretariat and feeding them with material for their hourly reports to their ministers during periods of particular tension.” The report notes that the crowd dispersed when gardai fired shots into the air.

“Robinson, who appears to have lingered behind deliberately, was arrested and held in custody for 32 hours (during which he refused all sustenance provided by the gardai, preferring the wholesome Ulster food brought to him by his wife) before being charged with four offences, including assaulting gardai and causing wilful damage.”

Although Mr Robinson was already in Ulster, this reference is to the breakfast brought to him by his wife Iris during his detention at Monaghan Garda station.

The official noted that Mr Robinson (who first appeared in court in Ballybay) was granted bail to appear in court in Dundalk on 14 August.

Other loyalist shows of strength planned to take place on the same night as Clontibret were limited by RUC activity to Swatragh in County Derry where a group of masked men, some carrying firearms, marched through the nationalist village, causing some damage to property. Both incidents were condemned by the British and Irish governments. For its part, the DUP hailed the operation “as a clear indication of the absence of cross-border security”.

A separate file reveals that Peter Robinson and his party leader, Ian Paisley, felt they “narrowly escaped with their lives” and made a formal protest to the British Foreign Office about inadequate protection, following a court appearance in Dundalk over the Clontibret incident.

Peter Robinson later took over from Ian Paisley as DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland.

PAISLEY DOCUMENTARY

Paisley: Genesis to Revelation with Eamonn Mallie  Photo: BBC NI website

Paisley: Genesis to Revelation with Eamonn Mallie Photo: BBC NI website

Ouch! Looks like the DUP handlers have been working overtime to get their retaliation in first, in advance of the broadcasting of the second part of Eamonn Mallie’s interview and documentary featuring the former DUP leader and former Free Presbyterian Moderator Lord Bannside. Worth remembering that Ian Paisley is now 87, as one of the party’s responses remind us.

Statement from Democratic Unionist Party Spokesman: “Lord Bannside is entitled to his own opinions – however, he is not entitled to his own facts. The Party deeply appreciates the contribution Lord Bannside made to Northern Ireland and to the growth of the DUP.  Despite the headlines regarding these programmes, the Party will not be losing focus. Our greatest ever electoral victory, in 2011, gave us a mandate to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. We will get on with that task.

We are saddened to see Lord Bannside harm his own legacy.  In his later years as Party leader, many colleagues shielded his frailty from public view, to avoid embarrassment and protect his legacy.  Those people are hurt by untrue and bitter comments contained in the documentary.

The party, unlike the media, has not been granted an advance viewing, however, the programme maker and the BBC have already been informed of the inaccuracy of those claims made in the programme about which they have notified us. The Party does not intend to respond to the personal opinions expressed in the programme – those making the comments must take responsibility for them – but it will not let untrue assertions dressed up as facts go unchallenged.

Dr Paisley, as he was then known, gave a number of interviews on the occasion of his retirement announcement.  In those interviews he stated that he had been considering his retirement for some time and had himself chosen the time to stand down.  Moreover he denied that he had been “pushed”.  The public may well ask whether then or now they have been misled. Worse, he now seeks to place the responsibility for his decision on those who protected him most when, at 82 years of age, his ability to perform his duties was seriously diminished and causing widespread concern.

Contrary to media speculation, the party has not mounted any form of legal challenge to this programme. When the Party sees the second programme, rather than relying on third party accounts, it will decide if any further response is necessary.”

Statement from Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA, Democratic Unionist Party Leader: 

“There are many who will believe that in agreeing to participate in these interviews Lord Bannside will have done nothing to enhance his legacy. They will struggle to reconcile the spirit and tone he presents with that which they will have known and admired.  This is not the Ian Paisley we knew.

As someone who faithfully served Dr Paisley for many decades I will make one final sacrifice by not responding and causing any further damage to his legacy beyond that which he has done himself.  Rather than return insult for insult, let me bless him with the mercy of my silence and wish him well.”

Statement from Rt Hon Nigel Dodds MP, Democratic Unionist Party Deputy Leader: 

“I am personally very saddened to learn of the tone and contents of the latest programme on Lord Bannside.   All of us who worked hard for him and with him for many years wished only the best for him and for our country. It is to be deeply regretted that at 87 and retired that this programme may be what is remembered about him rather than the good things that he did.

Clearly the passage of time has diminished accurate recall of events.   What is being said now by Lord Bannside about meetings is inaccurate and stands in stark contrast to everything that he said and did at the time and, indeed, during the years since.  As Lord Bannside is not long out of hospital I wish him well in his recovery.”

Statement by Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, Democratic Unionist Party Chairman:

“I have served as Chairman of the DUP for most of the period discussed in the programmes. During that time, I have some great memories of Dr Paisley.  I am saddened by this turn of events.  Throughout my political lifetime I was a loyal friend to Lord Bannside.  I wish him well in his recovery.  These latest utterances do not do justice to someone who was a giant in unionism in Northern Ireland.”

Statement from Timothy Johnston, former Special Advisor to First Minister Ian Paisley: 

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the general content and tone of the Ian Paisley programme to be broadcast by the BBC on Monday evening. After a long and distinguished career it is very regrettable that Dr Paisley, as well as Mrs Paisley, and those who now advise them, have co-operated in the making of two programmes that have significantly and irreversibly damaged his historical legacy.  Unsurprisingly the events of that time have not been accurately recalled and indeed the “research” used by the production staff is wrong in many significant respects.  Some of the programme content is simply untrue.

I totally refute any allegation, suggestion or implication that a survey conducted was “framed” by me or anyone else.  Dr Paisley commissioned the survey and was aware of its nature and its findings at the time.  At no point then or since has Dr Paisley or Mrs Paisley sought to raise these concerns with me despite having had every opportunity to do so.

I learned many valuable lessons while working for Dr Paisley, one of which was not to discuss internal party business in public.  I have no intention of departing from the advice he proffered at the height of his career.  While saddened by this turn of events I wish Dr Paisley well for the future.”

Whatever about the reaction from the politicians, it was interesting that the final quote came from Timothy Johnston, former special advisor to Ian Paisley when the DUP leader became First Minister in a power-sharing Exective with Sinn Féin, along with UUP and SDLP representatives in May 2007.

So there you have it. It just remains to see what exactly Ian Paisley has to say for himself at 10:35pm on BBC1 Northern Ireland. Paisley: Genesis to Revelation. Episode 2. Ian Paisley has been one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century. From firebrand preacher to hard line politician and ultimately Northern Ireland’s first minister, he has lived a life in the public eye.

In this two-part series, Eamonn Mallie challenges Ian Paisley on his role in Northern Ireland’s troubled past and reveals the dramatic circumstances of his departure from politics and public life. Expect to hear Eamonn on a number of radio current affairs programmes this morning talking about the programme.

According to the Irish News front page, Ian Paisley is claiming that the DUP betrayed him and he alleges that senior party figures plotted his downfall as leader.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR?

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

First things first. If you came here looking for a commentary on the Allied advance in the Second World War and battles such as the bridge at Arnhem, then you will be disappointed. I am sorry if I misled you. But the title seemed appropriate for the ongoing controversy over the proposed bridge at Narrow Water at the head of Carlingford Lough. They have been talking about the project since 1976 when the East Border Region committee was formed by ten councils on both sides of the border, years before the Anglo-Irish agreement or the Good Friday agreement.

The proposed structure would link County Down just beyond Narrow Water Castle with the opposite side of the shore near Omeath in County Louth. The project eventually received planning permission and the prospect of EU funding of €17.4m last year. This green light was welcomed by the East Border Region Committee Chair, Councillor Jackie Crowe, a Sinn Féin member from Monaghan.

Proposed Bridge

Proposed Bridge

The approved scheme is for a single carriageway cable-stayed bridge across Carlingford Lough, which will be able to open to enable tall ships, leisure craft and other marine vessels access to Victoria Lock and the Albert Basin in Newry. The total length of the scheme is 620m while the towers have a height of 90m and 37m respectively. The design is by Roughan O’Donovan Consulting Engineers, who were also responsible for the new Boyne Bridge on the M1 near Drogheda.In his statement welcoming the project on 24th October 2012, Councillor Crowe is quoted as saying that the proposed bridge was:-

a genuinely symbolic cross border project providing the first bridge linking Ireland and Northern Ireland and will provide a momentous tourism and economic catalyst for the whole of the region. The Bridge development will provide much needed jobs in the construction sector in the short term and will undoubtedly enhance the tourism potential of the region as it acts as a gateway to the Mournes and Cooley Mountains”.

And I thought Sinn Féin always referred to the island of “Ireland” as a 32-county entity……but perhaps this was a statement drawn up by someone else. It also seems to contain an error often repeated by others that this is the first such cross-border bridge. Surely Councillor Crowe has heard of the projects successfully pursued with the Irish government by his party colleagues in Monaghan to get two small cross-border bridges rebuilt which the British Army had blocked in the early 1970s? Annaghroe and Knockaginny bridges across the River Blackwater connected Glaslough in County Monaghan and Caledon in County Tyrone and were re-opened in October 2010 by the then Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, whose colleague in government Dermot Ahern was very supportive of the Narrow Water project as a Louth TD and Minister for Justice.

It seems the progress of the Narrow Water project, described by its promoters as “iconic” and “histooric”, is not going to be as smooth as they hoped. Is it a bridge too far for unionists? Last November the First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson requested an investigation into the decision to grant EU funding. He rejected a claim by the SDLP MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie that he wanted money channelled away from North-South infrastructure schemes towards community projects involving former loyalist paramilitaries. The following month, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told the Assembly there was a “political smell” about the application for funding. He questioned the speed with which the Stormont Environment Minister, Alex Attwood of the SDLP, had granted planning permission for the bridge.

Margaret Ritchie MP

Margaret Ritchie MP

Now Margaret Ritchie has accused Sammy Wilson of dragging his feet and hiding behind other government departments when it comes to approving funding for the project. She quoted Mr Wilson’s argument that he could not approve the outstanding £2m for the Narrow Water Bridge until the Department of Regional Development had prepared a Roads Order. Ms Ritchie said she had now received confirmation from the Department for Regional Development that it is currently preparing the draft Roads Order, which is expected to published next month. But according to the Minister Danny Kennedy, she said, the formal making of the Order will not happen until the Department for Finance approves the business case.

Ms Ritchie said this response clearly states that the Minister for Finance can make the decision to approve the Narrow Water Bridge funding now and that this decision is not held back by the work of the Department of Regional Development, despite claims to the contrary. She said if it remained the case that Sammy Wilson is not prepared to approve the funding then the First and Deputy First Ministers must ensure a decision is taken without further delay, in the interests of the wider community and the tourism industry in the Mourne area and throughout the island. Furthermore as this is an important North-South economic development project there is now a clear need for the direct intervention of the British and Irish Governments to ensure that this project faces no more unnecessary delay, she added.

The MP has taken a keen interest in the project since her involvement with the East Border Region Committee as a Councillor in 1985. She paid tribute to people such as her predecessor Eddie McGrady, Jim McCart, Donal O’Tierney and Barney Carr, who she said had never faltered from their belief in the bridge and who had shaped the economic debate for it and kept the project alive during very difficult political times in the North.

Narrow Water project

Narrow Water project

UNIONIST DIS-UNITY

Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt

What happens next is what happens next”   That’s my nomination for quote of the week. You can now see why ex media star Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. His ability to state the obvious with ease and not answer any difficult questions from interviewers, now that he is on the other side of the microphone or the camera. Mike had been asked on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster (1:58:00) about the future direction of the UUP and whether there would be other agreed unionist candidiates in future elections. The question arose following the resignation from the party last night of former deputy leader John McCallister MLA, over the UUP/DUP decision to run an agreed unionist candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election, which I wrote about yesterday. Mr Nesbitt described the move as a “one-off”, but some wondered if it would just be the start of the end for the UUP and its amalgamation with the larger party led by Peter Robinson.

Then came a second bombshell for the UUP. Lagan Valley Basil McCrea MLA did an interview with the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster in which he announced his resignation. He hinted that plans were underway for the formation of a new “opposition” party along with Mr McCallister and the East Londonderry independent MLA David McClarty (formerly UUP).

Mr McClarty told the same programme on the BBC anybody who was a betting person would have put their money on John and Basil going at some stage. It happened extremely quickly, and it wrong-footed an awful lot of people, he said.  Mr McClarty said the UUP had lost its way. The Ulster Unionist Party is sending out mixed messages; they want to be progressive and pluralist, he said, yet they really have now turned this bye-election into a sectarian head count and we’re back to tribal politics. The three will be keeping in contact over the next few weeks and it remains to be seen what plans they will come up with.

One of the criticisms made by Basil McCrea was that the choice of one candidate on the unionist side (who is unlikely to win the seat anyway, given the current level of support for nationalist parties) would lead to a sectarian dogfight on the campaign trail. DUP leader Peter Robinson rejected this and said unionism was not sectarian.

The agreed unionist representative is Nigel Lutton, an orangeman who has worked with Protestant victims’ groups and whose father was shot dead by the IRA in 1979, shortly after he had left the RUC Reserve. Sinn Féin are putting forward Francie Molloy and the SDLP candidate is deputy party leader Patsy McGlone.

Patsy McGlone

Patsy McGlone

He hit out at the decision by the two unionist party leaders to back Mr Lutton and said it had the potential to reduce the by-election into a bitter sectarian struggle, echoing the views of Basil McCrea. He felt it would only create deeper tribalism. He claimed that Mike Nesbitt was leading the Ulster Unionist Party into electoral oblivion and was denying the electorate a choice. Eric Bullick will run for the Alliance party.