Is it the end of the bad old days for the Daily Express and Daily Star?

With increasing cross-promotion within his group, Richard Desmond can no longer pander solely to Little Englanders.

Richard Desmond's empire is a curious thing: on the one hand, you have newspapers that worry about immigration and have strayed into toxic territory by giving positive coverage to the English Defence League; on the other, you have magazines like OK!, so fluffy and inoffensive that turning the pages is like being pelted with Care Bears.

Perhaps it's with one eye on detoxifying his newspaper brands that Desmond has branched out with the Health Lottery, a fundraising enterprise that aims to give £50m a year to health charities. With 20.5p per £1 ticket going to those charities (compared with 28p per £1 for the National Lottery), the scheme will have to sell 243 million units a year to hit that goal – but as there are so many promotional outlets available to market the new game, don't write it off. We'll be seeing the Health Lottery on Channel 5, and reading about it in the Express, the Star and OK! Magazine – something to look forward to for us all, there.

Described as "an exciting new lottery" by the Daily Express and as "Northern & Shell's exciting new brand" by Channel 5's Kate Walsh at the press conference, the Health Lottery is a laudable venture. Even those of us who aren't Desmond's biggest fans should wish it well – not just because of the charity element, but because, perhaps, it marks a turning point for his newspapers.

With such a generous venture in the pipeline, Desmond moved to distance his publications from the English Defence League – and the Daily Star on Sunday at the weekend even took a potshot at the Little Englanders, showing a "chilling photo" of EDLers with guns (or replica guns) in their hands, highlighting racist chants and mentioning a "sick Nazi salute". Getting readers by confirming people's prejudices about immigration is one thing; seeming to give tacit support to a polarising organisation such as the EDL is quite another.

The closer Desmond brings his brands together – and the cross-promotion shows no sign of letting up right now – the less spiky the likes of the Star and Express will have to become. That might erode a little of the character of the newspapers, but it might chip away at their nastier side, too. Headlines like BBC PUTS MUSLIMS BEFORE YOU or THEY'VE STOLEN ALL OUR JOBS don't sit nicely alongside the cheerful, breezy tone of OK! magazine or the mass appeal of Channel 5's shows like Home and Away.

Pandering to Little Englanders every now and again might have done a good job in retaining a few hardcore readers for the Express and the Star, but that kind of tactic might become a hindrance when you're trying to make those readers hop over to OK!, or get OK readers to hop over to the Express, or Channel 5 viewers to buy your newspapers as well.

Here's wishing the Health Lottery well, then. It could raise a lot of money for charity and it could mark the end of the bad old days for the Express and the Star. It may seem unlikely, but I'll take a gamble . . .

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.