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Belfast-born MP in eye of Lords reform storm tells of regret at quitting his post

The former aide to Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson has spoken of his “huge regret” at quitting the job in protest at the Government's Lords reform plans.

Conor Burns, the only Northern Ireland-born member of the Government, said moves to elect the upper chamber were an “unsightly and unseemly act”.

Last night, Prime Minister David Cameron raised the prospect of watered-down reforms to elect far fewer of the peers, telling Tory MPs he wanted one more try to get their support before “drawing a line” and moving on.

His comments further infuriated the Liberal Democrats, who were already smarting at the biggest rebellion of the Government so far against the Lords Reform Bill on Tuesday night.

The most high-profile rebel was Mr Burns, a Catholic who spent his early years in Belfast before moving to England.

In order to vote against the Government, he needed to resign from the position of Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr Paterson.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “I have huge regret that I had to resign to vote as I did.

“As someone who is a Catholic and a unionist, and someone who feels Northern Ireland emotionally and intellectually, I felt I was able to make a contribution.”

He said he had been “very touched” by messages of support from Northern Ireland’s MPs, as well as hand-written notes from Mr Paterson and his Labour shadow, Vernon Coaker.

Mr Burns said he “broadly supported” the Government’s policies in Northern Ireland, although he acknowledged that the controversial programme of welfare reform would have a particular impact on the province.

He said he intended to speak out more on Northern Ireland matters, something he was unable to do as an adviser to Mr Paterson.

His resignation leaves the Secretary of State again searching for a Parliamentary aide.

His previous assistant, Stewart Jackson, quit in October as part of a rebellion over the EU.

A spokesman for Mr Paterson said last night that the post would be filled until further notice by South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson. Speaking in the Lords reform debate, Foyle SDLP MP Mark Durkan said he “strongly” disagreed with Mr Burns, but paid tribute to the outgoing aide.

He said: “His insights and instincts were hugely appreciated by all parties, and by people outside of politics as well.”

Any watering-down of the plans to elect the Lords would diminish the prospects of the SDLP agreeing to take seats in the upper chamber, he said.

The SDLP and the Alliance’s Naomi Long backed the Bill when MPs voted late on Tuesday.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, said the Government should not be pressing ahead with Lords reform at a time of economic crisis.

His party voted against the Bill.

Background

As the only Northern Ireland-born member of the Government, Conor Burns was highly regarded by Westminster politicians. The 39-year-old was born in Belfast before his family moved to Hertfordshire in 1980. He was elected to Parliament to represent Bournemouth West. As the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State he was in charge of being the unpaid “eyes and ears” of Owen Paterson on the back benches.

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