Belfast Telegraph

The show must go on as our MPs play to empty benches

By Tom Moseley

One thing televised coverage of the Commons doesn't convey is the background noise. Sitting in the Press gallery during Prime Minister's Questions can be deafening, with MPs screaming and gesticulating across the despatch box.

It's also annoying when honourable members display the sort of manners that would get you thrown out of class at primary school, as they did during Northern Ireland Questions last week.

Owen Paterson and Hugo Swire were fielding questions on border polls (Paterson has "no intention" of calling one), a Bill of Rights (no consensus between party leaders) and the Finucane review (Paterson is "more than happy" to meet campaigners).

Not that the English MPs waiting in the chamber for Prime Minister's Questions to start were interested. Front and back-benchers from all parties were chatting and joking, oblivious to what was going on around them.

"Order," yelled the Speaker. "There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place. As a matter of courtesy to the people of Northern Ireland, it would be good to have a bit of hush."

It didn't matter, as the final exchanges of Northern Ireland's one regular spot in the limelight were lost in a sea of gossiping MPs.

There were no such problems later on, as the DUP's debate on changing perceptions of Northern Ireland played out to empty green benches. I counted Owen Paterson and Hugo Swire for the Government, Vernon Coaker and Stephen Pound for Labour and two Tory backbenchers.

No Lib Dems fancied it. It's a shame so many stayed away, because they missed some good lines, all recorded faithfully by Hansard. Here's a sample: William McCrea: "I remember a fancy-dress competition in my local town of Stewartstown. I was dressed as a little sailor."

Mark Durkan: "There is an onus on us to go about this place with the demeanour of Aer Lingus cabin crew, smiling at everything."

David Simpson: "My background is in the meat industry, so I believe that I should be a good advertisement for that industry."

And from Hugo Swire: "The Ulster fry is the antithesis to the Jane Fonda workout."

With material like this enshrined in the parliamentary record, David Cameron won't need the joke book sent to him by Gregory Campbell last week.

With the exception of a robust speech from the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie, who said the DUP's motion had not been inclusive, it was a convivial three-hour advertisement for Northern Ireland, which gave ministers a far easier ride than the a debate on the economy had done the previous week.

And perhaps it was a good thing that so few MPs turned up - they'd only have talked over it.


From Belfast Telegraph