David Cameron pledges to work for peace, but says little on cuts
Prime Minister David Cameron has attempted to woo the people of Northern Ireland by using his key party conference speech to give commitments to the province.
Harking back to John Major's involvement in the peace process, a man whose role the Tories believe has been unfairly forgotten over time, the premier told an adoring crowd of activists he would continue the work his predecessor started.
But, on the back of the increased terror threat, he issued a warning to republican dissidents that he will use “every means” at his disposal to protect the nation.
As the speech turned to tough pronouncements on UK defence policy, the Prime Minister admitted there are some “red lines” the British state must never cross.
Bloody Sunday was one of them and that was why he made the decision to apologise publicly.
“Britain's reputation is not just about might, it's about doing what is right,” he said. “When this country has got it wrong, we'll admit it, as I did when I apologised for Bloody Sunday.”
Post-devolution Prime Ministerial conference speeches and those of the opposition leader have had a traditionally light Northern Ireland focus, with a simple name check alongside Wales and Scotland the usual form.
But despite the failure of the Conservatives’ electoral pact with the UUP, Mr Cameron seemed intent on bolstering relations between the Tories and the province.
He did not comment on how Northern Ireland would be affected by public-sector cuts due to be announced by the Government later this month.
He told activists: “When I walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister, I was deeply conscious that I was taking over the heaviest of responsibilities, not least for the future of our United Kingdom.
“Tony Blair, Gordon Brown — and John Major before them — worked hard to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland and I will continue their work.
“And as the threat of dissident republican terrorism increases, I want to make it clear that we will protect the people of our country with every means at our disposal.
“And I want to make something else clear. When I say I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I really mean it. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland — we're weaker apart, stronger together, so together is how we must remain.”
But while Northern Ireland's political parties welcomed some of the gestures made, they cautioned it will mean little if the province is hit by massive cuts.
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said: “In Government, we ask David Cameron to renew and reshape the traditional Tory view of the North.
“Remembering that David Cameron stated prior to taking up power that Northern Ireland will be a target for his cuts, we must remain vigilant that services here should not be squeezed either directly or indirectly.
“It is our view that Northern Ireland may not be a special case, but we certainly have special arguments as a legacy of our conflict.”
UUP Leader Tom Elliott, who was at the conference in Birmingham, said: “Today's speech was hugely positive and reaffirmed the Prime Minister's commitment to Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.
“We can have no doubt that David Cameron envisages a strong United Kingdom, with Northern Ireland at its heart, and that is very welcome.
“Importantly, he is unswerving in his determination to stamp out terrorism.”