Belfast Telegraph

Magnificent Four make a merry sight for Westminster watchers

By Ed Curran

I guess you have to be a bit of a masochist to watch a Northern Ireland debate at Westminster, but I did it last week on the BBC's Parliamentary channel.

I doubt if I have ever witnessed two happier men than our direct rule ministers, Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and his Security Minister, Paul Goggins.

Woodward and Goggins were like cats who had spent the weekend running amok in a creamery. They beamed from ear to ear and clearly could barely contain their relief and delight at handing over policing and justice responsibilities to an as-yet-unselected and unconfirmed Stormont minister.

Does poor David Ford really know what he is letting himself in for? I hope so, but I have to wonder.

The debate was described as a great moment of history for Northern Ireland, which is not surprising given that the British Parliament was handing over of some of the most disputed and contentious policing and justice powers in the Western world.

Sadly, not too many people shared this momentous occasion. I reckoned the House of Commons could have taken another 600 MPs because there was barely a quorum in view on my TV.

Lady Sylvia Hermon was there, snuggled up on the back benches alongside Big Ian, young Jeffrey Donaldson and a sartorially elegant First Minister, resplendent for the occasion in a white collar, blue shirt and red tie. For a man who looked down and virtually out, Peter Robinson has made a remarkable recovery.

He showed not a hint of pressure or hesitancy as he did a David Cameron, speaking without notes for a good 10 minutes, which I thought was no mean feat given the intricacies of his 'Made in Ulster' Hillsborough deal.

Everybody was thanking and complimenting everybody. Peter Robinson thanked the Secretary of State for his help at Hillsborough. Paul Goggins poured reciprocal praise on any unionists he could see across the Commons chamber.

By my reckoning there were only the Magnificent Four - Big Ian, the First Minister, Jeffrey D and Lady Sylvia, all nodding and smiling approvingly as he heaped his plaudits upon them.

Only poor Mark Durkan of the SDLP was out of place, asking awkward questions and looking as isolated on the green leather benches as a lone spectator watching a bottom of the league clash in the Irish League.

What a sense of relief, I thought, for the Brits. After 38 years of being shackled with the nigh-on impossible and incomprehensible task of controlling policing and justice in Ulster, Messrs Woodward and Goggins were free spirits.

Mark Durkan tried his best to inject a little bite and dissent into the proceedings, but no one was interested. Much as he raised points of order and posed his difficult questions, everybody else just wanted things to be hunky dory on this momentous day. The message was eat, drink and be merry. Mr Durkan's reservations would be sorted out in due course. No problem.

After all, this was no time for recrimination. It was a day to rejoice that the British Parliament had finally off-loaded the poisoned chalice of policing and justice on the poor unsuspecting folks on Stormont's hill.

David Cameron's Secretary of State-in-waiting lolled on his seat and smiled up at the Commons ceiling. Whatever considerable concerns should have been racing through Owen Paterson's head about the Ulster Unionists, never mind Lady Sylvia, he wasn't for showing them today.

Thanks were also offered up from the direction of the Magnificent Four for the £800m which Gordon Brown had stuffed in the chalice before the official hand-over.

Tributes reigned on the greatest peacemaker of them all, no less than the Rev Ian Paisley. In turn, Big Ian nodded approvingly and displayed a smile as wide as the goal-posts at Windsor Park.

The days when they, the Brits, regarded him as the scourge of Westminster, were over and forgotten in the ringing tones of undiluted praise for what he had achieved. He would be remembered, said Mr Goggins, as "the man who finally said 'Yes'". Yes indeed. Amen to that.

It was left to Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson to take a final curtain bow before the representatives of Her Majesty's Government. As ever, not a Shinner darkened the door of Westminster. And even if the Ulster Unionists wanted to be there, which was probably doubtful, the only one of them who had a ticket was Lady Sylvia and everyone knew she wouldn't be one of them much longer.

Perhaps, I thought, Martin McGuinness was holding the fort back at Stormont, his feet on the First Minister's desk and the office television switched to the BBC Parliamentary channel, as mine was. Perhaps Gerry Adams was having a peep as well somewhere in west Belfast, or Gerry Kelly in the wilds of Ardoyne. Perhaps the Shinners were at Westminster in spirit if not in person.

After all is said and done, the whole momentous occasion would have not have been possible without them. No one was more instrumental in rehearsals for the big show and the final curtain call in the Westminster music hall, yet the Shinners showband was nowhere to be seen.

Such is the way of Northern Ireland. One of the biggest moments in our history and hardly anyone turns up to witness it.

But I'm glad I was there and that the BBC Parliamentary channel had at least one viewer. Happy days, Mr Woodward and Mr Goggins. Happy days.

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