Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 14 January 2006

Ministers are cut slack in 'murky NI'

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Peter Hain
Peter Hain "can breathe a sigh of relief"

A cabinet minister makes an embarrassing climbdown. It is the second U-turn he has performed within the space of six months.

Surely he is under pressure to resign? Wrong, because the minister concerned is Peter Hain and the U-turn did not concern a key aspect of the Labour manifesto.

Indeed, when the question of resignation was raised with the secretary of state by the BBC's Good Morning Ulster presenter Seamus McKee, Mr Hain scoffed.

The prime minister had not discussed the possibility with him - "not for a nanosecond".

Of course, Tony Blair would have had a bit of cheek raising such a question with Mr Hain given that this latest debacle is the result of a deal hatched by Downing Street back at Weston Park in 2001 and then again at Hillsborough in 2003.

The belated opposition from Sinn Fein was crucial to the scheme's withdrawal

Successive secretaries of state have merely been the poor unfortunates charged with piloting what many MPs regarded as a repugnant measure through parliament.

But the other reason the withdrawal of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill is not a resignation issue is that, unlike the Education Department's decision to allow a handful of sex offenders to work in schools, it was not a big deal, so far as Fleet Street was concerned.

The belated opposition from Sinn Fein was crucial to the scheme's withdrawal.

But ministers would also have been aware that if the measure had gone to the Lords, the government could have suffered a high profile defeat in the Upper House.

Any U-turn at this stage might have provoked greater attention in London and therefore greater ministerial embarrassment.

Tony Blair
Government version is Mr Blair was not denying ever being consulted

So now Peter Hain can breathe a sigh of relief.

The other point here is that a Northern Ireland controversy has to be pretty big and pretty exceptional to make waves in London.

Right now, the DUP is pursuing Tony Blair about what they believe was a piece of sleight of hand in mid-December which left MPs with the impression that the prime minister had nothing whatsoever to do with the controversial Stormontgate case.

On 14 December, Mr Blair told SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell that "we were not consulted about this matter".

But then just before Christmas, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith confirmed he had consulted cabinet colleagues on the case in January 2005 in what he described as a "Shawcross exercise".

The government insists this decision was taken independently by the PPS on the basis of information provided by the police in November 2005

Taking its name from a former attorney general, this is a legal exercise in which the government's principal law officer finds out from colleagues any information relevant to a case, but makes his decision about its progress regardless of political considerations.

This week, Solicitor General Mike O'Brien confirmed that the cabinet members consulted were Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - who has responsibility for MI6 - Home Secretary Charles Clarke - who is responsible for MI5 - the then Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The DUP's Nigel Dodds believes there is an inconsistency here and is demanding more clarity from Downing Street.

The government's version is that Tony Blair was not denying ever being consulted about the case.

Instead, he was saying he had not been consulted about last month's decision by the Public Prosecution Service to drop charges against three men, including the Sinn Fein official Denis Donaldson, who subsequently admitted being a British agent.

Lord Goldsmith confirmed he had consulted cabinet colleagues
Lord Goldsmith confirmed he had consulted cabinet colleagues

The government insists this decision was taken independently by the PPS on the basis of information provided by the police in November 2005.

Maybe so, but if this was Tony Blair on Iraq or Ruth Kelly on sex offenders, legions of commentators would be picking over the grammar and syntax to determine whether a cabinet minister had misled parliament.

But Stormontgate is complex and, as with Sir Patrick Mayhew's secret contacts, there is a readiness to cut ministers wrestling with the murky world of Northern Ireland a bit of slack.

Will Tony Blair consider resigning over Stormontgate? Not even for a nanosecond.

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