Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Cameron holds fire on riots ...they're over here after all

The Prime Minister's spokesman stared back at me, deadpan. After multiple questions on Europe, foreign policy and fisheries at the daily briefing, I had raised the issue of the riots in Belfast.

This was, he said, the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office and he referred me to the most recent words of its current custodian, Theresa Villiers.

I tried again - is it not time for the PM to get involved? How about chairing some meetings, banging some heads together? The answer was the same - it's a matter for the NIO.

Wind the clock back to August 2011 and David Cameron had interrupted his summer break to chair the emergency Cobra committee at Downing Street and announced that MPs would be summoned back from their holidays, because Parliament was being recalled.

The reason? The riots sweeping cities in England. "People should be in no doubt that we will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain's streets and to make them safe for the law- abiding," he promised.

Back to 2013 and, after weeks of violent clashes with police on the streets of Belfast, Mr Cameron had the chance to speak out during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

His answer - seen as a "challenge" to Northern Ireland's political parties to help build a "shared future" - was all on-message.

But would it have hurt to have tagged on an unequivocal line or two condemning the violence and calling for calm?

The contrast is fairly stark. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why Westminster does not want to wade into the issue. Accusations of undermining the Executive could be damaging.

When the protesters eventually decide to call it a day, it's unlikely to be for fear of another scolding from Villiers.

Would Tony Blair have taken such a hands-off approach? A photocall here, some late-night talks there - his tactics would have been different. Labour, while keen to preserve a consensus on security matters, has said Northern Ireland demands a greater share of the PM's time.

Perhaps the most telling criticism came from the Alliance's Naomi Long, who has been in the eye of the storm.

"He's happy to visit Northern Ireland on the good days," she said, citing Mr Cameron's high-profile announcement of the G8 meeting in Fermanagh.

"But it's also important to make a connection on the bad days."

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