Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

London Notebook: Shock and awe at Cameron's new SAS recruit

Andrew Robathan

The Conservative parliamentary party led by David Cameron is packed with talent. There are dozens of people languishing on the back benches who would make excellent ministers, a problem exacerbated by the coalition.

The PM has to give jobs to Lib Dems that could easily be filled by his colleagues.

This week, he reshuffled his ministerial teams. Many highly-regarded ministers were sacked, not fulfilling the PM's remit of being a woman, or young, or from an ethnic minority.

Andrew Robathan (below), a 62-year-old former Coldstream Guards and SAS officer, was widely expected to be let go.

After all, he is exactly the sort of traditional Tory that belies Cameron's claims he has 'detoxified' the party.

Instead, Robathan, who was a defence minister until Monday, was the unexpected choice to replace Mike Penning as Minister of State for Northern Ireland.

His appointment has cause disquiet at Westminster and beyond. Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff complained on Twitter about the "insensitivity in appointing a former SAS man to a ministerial role" at the Northern Ireland Office.

Nationalists at Westminster, while willing to give him a chance, are also concerned.

His Army service should not be a barrier to him becoming a minister in Northern Ireland and, indeed, his predecessor, Mike Penning, served in the Army here during the Troubles.

But Conservative MPs who know both Northern Ireland and Robathan wonder why the Prime Minister thought he was the man for the job. "Penning was a squaddie, Robathan is very much officer class," one of his colleagues explained.

An incident earlier in this parliament tells us some of what we need to know about our new minister. Stella Creasy, a young, tech-savvy Labour MP elected in 2010, took to Twitter after an altercation near the Commons chamber.

"Can someone send me the picture list of snotty Tory MPs," she tweeted. "Need to identify the one who just tried to throw me out of the members' lift".

Robathan said it was "a genuine mistake" and he had merely "challenged two people who I had never set eyes on".

He apologised to Creasy, but the incident consolidated his image as a right-wing, old school tie, ex-military Tory grandee.

Earlier this year, the new minister voted against gay marriage. Indeed, he appears to have voted against every gay rights measure put before the House in his 21 years as an MP.

This is the man David Cameron has handed responsibility for human rights and equality here.

His opponents have been quick to point out that, in 2007, Robathan was questioning the need for an inquiry into Bloody Sunday, saying the process would "stir up old enmities and reopen old sores".

There are quite a few people who would agree with him, but Robathan will be aware that, in his new job, he will need to reach out to all sections of Northern Ireland society.

Labour accuses the Government of being "semi-detached" in their handing of Northern Ireland. Robathan's new challenge will be to show they are fully en gaged.

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