Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Nick Clegg's crew put Northern Ireland's problems on the back burner

Nick Clegg's Lib Dems want the UK to become a federal union, like Germany, with governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh taking the majority of decisions

David Ford was in Glasgow this week. The justice minister wasn't on a mini-break – he was paying a visit to the Alliance's sister party, the Liberal Democrats, which chose to hold its conference in Scotland.

Ford was one of the local guests at a fringe meeting on devolution run by Champ, a not-for-profit organisation, which promotes peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and Irish Lib Dems.

The Irish Lib Dems, by the way, are not the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland, but the party group for the Irish in Britain.

UUP MLA Danny Kinahan was at the meeting, as was Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy.

The presence of Sinn Fein at British party conferences has long since ceased to be contentious, even when the venue is the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

The relationship between Alliance and the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats takes a bit of explaining, though.

For example, the Lib Dems don't contest elections in the province, preferring to support Alliance candidates. Ford and others are members of both parties.

It is no coincidence that the Lib Dems chose to meet in Glasgow this year, rather than in one of the usual venues, such as Bournemouth, or Blackpool.

Scotland's independence referendum is one year away and Nick Clegg's (right) party went north of the border to make the case that we are better off together.

The Lib Dems want the UK to become a federal union, like Germany, with governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh taking the majority of decisions for their countries.

But you could be forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland isn't part of that vision.

On Monday, Kirsty Williams, the party's leader in Wales, gave the keynote address on devolution and federalism. Understandably, she focused on Scotland.

She spoke of "a settlement that recognises the need for more autonomy across the UK, in Wales and Scotland, but also London, England, the regions".

In her 2,700-word speech, Northern Ireland was not mentioned at all. In truth, the Lib Dems have little to say on it.

Within the coalition, the Northern Ireland Office is one of the handful of departments with no Lib Dem minister and their MPs rarely speak when Northern Ireland issues are debated at Westminster. The Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland's online presence consists of a blog.

Stephen Lloyd speaks for the party in the Commons on Northern Ireland.

He is assiduous in his duties, but it is telling that, in spite of all that has gone on in Northern Ireland in the past year, from flag protests to the G8 to dissident attacks on police, he won't be speaking from the platform.

By contrast, both the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, and her shadow, Vernon Coaker, will address their respective conferences in the coming weeks. This benign neglect of Northern Ireland by the Lib Dems is understandable, if frustrating. They are a party of government, but their day-to-day focus is on winning battles within the coalition.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem ministers let the Conservatives take the lead when it comes to Northern Ireland.