British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “detached” view on Northern Ireland doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in events here, says Foyle MP Mark Durkan.
Mr. Durkan says it’s wrong to say the Tory leader has no interest in Northern Ireland affairs.
“Let’s just say he doesn’t exaggerate his interest,” says the Foyle MP. “He doesn’t try to pretend it’s any more than it is.”
However, Mr. Durkan did acknowledge Mr. Cameron’s response to Lord Saville’s report into the events of Bloody Sunday.
“In fairness to him, he did get this absolutely right.”
The former SDLP leader says that, at this stage in his premiership, David Cameron is a “different kind of prime minister” than some of his predecessors.
“He has, generally, been prepared to leave things to his ministers. At this stage, he appears more trusting and respectful of his ministers.
“As such, he takes a more detached view and allows ministers to get on with it. Perhaps an extension of this allows him not to second guess Owen Paterson [NI Secretary of State].
“I don’t think this equates to a complete snub of the institutions. However, the longer he’s in office, this will probably change.”
Mr. Durkan’s remarks follow complaints from a number of local politicians who kicked up a fuss about lack of access to Mr. Cameron.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness demanded an “urgent” meeting with Mr. Cameron to “fight the Tory cuts” by re-negotiating Northern Ireland’s budget allocation.
That meeting has never happened, with Mr Cameron making it abundantly clear that he expects Stormont ministers to deal with Owen Paterson rather than come to Downing Street to discuss routine political business.
Turning to his role at Westminster, Mr. Durkan again insists he is there to “get stuck in and not sucked in.”
“Some people have fallen victim to the whole atmosphere of the ‘Westminster Village’ - but not me.
“I get stuck in when I need to but I don’t get sucked into any cosy Westminster consensus. I’m prepared to strike out on my own and on behalf of the party when I have to.”
So, does he miss the cut-and-thrust of politics as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“Yes, I do miss the Assembly,” he acknowledges. “The Assembly is hugely important in terms of its potential. As such, I regret that it hasn’t been allowed to fulfil its potential during the last term but I hope this is something that can come good again.
“I see the institutions as central to taking this community forward and key to improving the economy.”
The Foyle MP, however, says he disappointed at the lack of activity of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
“Nothing very new has been happening,” he says. “Compared to the initial plans we had for it, what’s happened recently is very pedestrian.
“For example, the North West Gateway Initiative - a cross-border project to attract new employers and economic benefits to the region - simply hasn’t happened.
“If it had been formally adopted as an NSMC item, matters proposed for North-West cross-border projects - such as the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin - would be coming through under the badgeline of the North West Gateway Initiative and individual ministers could not purport to take unilateral decisions about them. Rather, they would take place in their proper context.
“We are suffering from not having things operating as they should be. People say I’m a technocrat and that I’m obsessed with the machinery of government, but these things matter.
“There are things you need to get right under the bonnet otherwise sitting in a flash car is no good to you.
“That’s why I feel a bit disappointed that things that could be done a lot better, done with more creativity and accountability, simply aren’t.”
Mr. Durkan says that, with a new Assembly mandate just around the corner and a new government installed in the Republic, “we have an opportunity for a fresh start in terms of the North-South structures. I would definitely like to see the NSMC working more actively and effectively.”
Looking to next month’s local government and Assembly elections, Mr. Durkan believes that the SDLP is “up to the challenge.”
“We share a lot of people’s frustrations that there should be more of a devolution difference; that there can be much more creative initiative under devolution.
“Essentially, we’re using these elections as an opportunity to persaude people that, if they want better outcomes from devolution, a better result for the SDLP is a good start.”