O come all ye faithful

Wind-turbines turn to face the wind. Sunflowers turn to face the sun. Will the British public turn o

I don’t know whether it was the stark lighting in the ballroom of the Winter Gardens at Blackpool or the giant backdrop of green trees and blue sky, but when George Osborne strode out onto the stage soon after mid-day, he looked perfectly plausible as a Chancellor-in-waiting. He seemed taller, a bit heavier, his voice fuller, more authoritative. What’s more, he had some real red meat for an audience desperate for some solid fare.

When he told the Conference he was going to exempt houses worth up to £1 million from inheritance tax, there was a sudden current of excitement in the hall. A well-dressed lady, possibly from Kensington and Chelsea, sitting near me groaned: “a million isn’t nearly enough!” She probably hoped, as others did, that Osborne would promise to abolish IHT altogether. But for most people Osborne’s pledge on death duty, coupled with a promise to remove stamp-duty for first-time buyers of houses costing less than £250,000, pressed all the right buttons.

Will the Osborne bounce and the anticipated Cameron bounce tomorrow be enough to counter the Brown bounce? Certainly, here in Blackpool, election fever is in the air. I had a drink with David Heathcoat Amory, long-serving MP for Wells. “Wells is ready” he told me. “The posters are printed!”

Heathcoat Amory believed that foot-and-mouth could throw a spanner in the works. “You can hardly hold an election with the country in lock-down mode.”

For the afternoon social policy debate, I found myself sitting next to Orlando Fraser. As the delegates gathered, he surprised me and others nearby by shouting “Cameron, Cameron!” and gesticulating vigorously. Orlando has never been backward about coming forward but it turned out on this occasion he was trying to attract the attention of a gentleman called Cameron Watts, a stalwart of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

Orlando has been chairing one of the policy panels. Many of us hope that, after having fought a brilliant, though ultimately unsuccessful, fight to regain North Devon from the Liberal Democrats, Orlando will soon return to the fray. If Boris becomes Mayor of London on May 1 next year, perhaps Orlando could have a shot at Henley?

Talking of Boris, I have to admit to my shame that I missed his apparently well-received speech to the Conference. Multi-tasking, I was in Paris where Leo, one of Boris’ brothers, was celebrating his 40th birthday. But I caught up with my eldest son at a fringe meeting, where he was his usual exuberant self.

“I want a greener London” he proclaimed to a packed auditorium, “a London where more trees are being planted than cut down and I want us all to have the confidence to cycle!”

Sir Roger (Dr.)Bannister (who in his seventies probably still runs faster than most of us can cycle) recently pointed out to me that one of the advantages of cycling is that it restricts the flow of blood to the testicles, thus reducing fertility. Given the degree of “people-congestion” in London, this seems another excellent reason to promote the bicycle. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to mention this to Boris in Blackpool.

Blackpool itself is fairly bicycle-free. It has those famous trams, gliding along the promenade.Even trams have a carbon footprint, of course. Walking back to my hotel at the end of a long day, I ran into an old friend, Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. It was a wonderful balmy evening, with the sun setting splendidly over the Irish Sea. Tony nodded approvingly at the cluster of giant wind-turbines, rising out of the water on the horizon. “They turn to face the wind” Tony explained, “just as sunflowers turn to face the sun”.

Will the great British public, I wonder, turn their heads once again to the Conservative Party at the end of this Conference week? We must live in hope.

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.