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Commons confidential: Meryl Streep and the self-publicist peril

Unluckily for MPs yearning for the limelight, Meryl Streep will be filming her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Westminster during the Easter recess.

Voters can be awkward people, as Nick Clegg discovered during a stunt with Liberal Democrat MPs. The idea was to hold up a banner in Victoria Tower Gardens, the patch of green along the River Thames at the Lords end of parliament, declaring the Con-Dem coalition’s minor party to be marvellous or some such vacuous nonsense. TV crews assembled and commenced filming the Yellow Peril propaganda palaver – so far, so mundane. Until a demonstrator joined in. “Nick Clegg,” yelled the protester, “you know BEEP BEEP is a paedophile.” BEEP BEEP is the name of a once-prominent politician who may be recognisable to some NS readers. I understand that serious allegations have been made to the police about sexual abuse of boys and young men. Broadcasters, perhaps Clegg and certainly BEEP BEEP will be relieved that the event wasn’t transmitted live.

Colonel “Bonking” Bob Stewart is on manoeuvres. The commander of British forces in Bosnia-turned-Tory MP is the only Conservative on the Commons defence committee lobbying Labour MPs hard to succeed James Arbuthnot as chairman. I’m told that others – Julian Brazier, Adam Holloway and James Gray – are concentrating their drinks on fellow Tories. The position is decided by a vote of the entire House. A Tory MP by the name of Bercow successfully went behind enemy lines to be elected Speaker.

MPs are dividing into two camps after an email informed them that the veteran documentary-maker Michael Cockerell is preparing to make Parliament: the Movie. The Invisibles want nothing to do with the Beeb four-parter while the self-publicists clamour to be on the small screen. The authorities came up with a solution to prevent the self-publicists hassling Meryl Streep when she is filmed playing the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst: the Hollywood shoot is scheduled for the Easter recess, when they will be on holiday.

Should Streep be looking for an unusual memento, she could always buy a £16.95 model of the Houses of Parliament or a £19.95 House of Commons chamber. Both are assembled out of wooden blocks and sold in a gift shop. I counted a dozen nondescript MPs in the chamber box. That many shows it must be based on a busy day.

Back in TV land, a producer muttered disapprovingly that Diane Abbott was observed filling a paper bag with the pastries put out for guests.

The Egyptian rapper and star of Arabs Got Talent Mayam Mahmoud flew to Britain to collect the Freedom of Expression arts award from Index on Censorship. The teenager uses hip-hop to fight sexual harassment and stand up for women’s rights in Egypt but nothing prepared her for London. She was pickpocketed, the money being filched from her handbag. And we’re warned to be careful in Cairo. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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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.