Belfast Telegraph

Premier's significant moment in NI and his years of indifference

By Alex Kane

In terms of Northern Ireland, David Cameron will be best remembered for his response to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday on June 15, 2010, just five weeks after he became Prime Minister.

"But what happened should never, ever have happened," he said.

"The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss.

"Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and, for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.

"I hope what this report can also do is mark the moment where we can come together in this House and in the communities we represent to acknowledge our shared history, even where it divides us. And come together to close this painful chapter on Northern Ireland's troubled past."

The words were hugely important for the nationalist community - although some elements within unionism thought he had gone too far - but they were also hugely important for underpinning peace and the political process which had been secured by the efforts of his predecessors, John Major and Tony Blair.

Cameron's response paved the way for the Queen's state visit to Ireland in May 2011 and for Martin McGuinness's handshake with her in June 2012.

Generally speaking, though, Cameron tended to give Northern Ireland a wide berth after he became Prime Minister.

That may have had something to do with the fact that his electoral pact - championed by the then Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson - with the UUP had muddied the waters with both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

They viewed it as 'interference' in local politics in the run-up to the general election in May 2010, and it failed to deliver a single seat.

There was a half-hearted attempt by both sides to keep the project alive for a few months after the election, but it soon became clear that Cameron had no particular interest in a relationship with a party which seemed to be on an irreversible downward spiral.

His appointment of Theresa Villiers as Paterson's replacement in September 2012 seemed to be a pretty clear signal that Northern Ireland was way, way down his list of priorities.

Her manner was described by all of the local parties as 'aloof' and 'disinterested' and lobby correspondents in London suggested that he kept her in situ because he needed to bolster the gender balance in the Cabinet.

She certainly didn't seem particularly interested in a hands-on approach, let alone concerned about building a personal relationship with key figures - as many of her predecessors had done.

Cameron was clearly impatient with the dragging-it-out-to-the-bitter-end nature of serial crises negotiations between local parties (he was, after all, managing his own occasionally difficult coalition with Nick Clegg). On one occasion, in December 2014, having been asked to fly over to Belfast to broker an expected breakthrough, he flew back to London the following morning, "and was," according to a source, "hopping mad at the sheer stupidity of those people".

All in all, Cameron's legacy here isn't on the same scale as some of his predecessors. That said, his response to Saville during those first few weeks in Downing Street may yet turn out to have been one of the most significant contributions to the peace process.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph