New PM to visit Northern Ireland

AS new Secretary of State Owen Paterson said he was "absolutely" a unionist, plans were last night being made for a Belfast visit from new Prime Minister David Cameron.

Informed Tory sources said that Mr Cameron, who yesterday appointed his Liberal-Conservative cabinet, will fly into the Province next week as part of a tour of the United Kingdom.

During his pre-election visit to Belfast last week Mr Cameron promised that if elected Prime Minister he would be "back in a week".

Yesterday the Tory leader confirmed that Owen Paterson will be his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replacing Labour's Shaun Woodward.

Speaking to the News Letter last night, the new Hillsborough Castle resident, who has been a weekly visitor to Northern Ireland since becoming shadow secretary of state three years ago, dismissed fears that he will not be able to work with the DUP and Sinn Fein, due to his close relationship with Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey.

Asked whether past fall-outs would be a hindrance, Mr Paterson said: "I think it will help that I have been coming here and met all sorts of people ... visiting areas where I think shadow secretaries of state have never been before.

"But in an election campaign there are bound to be disagreements – some of them quite colourful."

Mr Paterson, who was re-elected the MP for North Shropshire with an increased majority of almost 16,000 last week, argued that just as MPs represent those who voted against them, he could deal fairly with those whom he had argued against during the course of the election campaign.

In statements last night after speaking to Mr Paterson, the DUP and Sinn Fein gave measured responses to Mr Paterson's appointment, with DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson welcoming his appointment.

However, the DUP has had strained relations with Mr Paterson since the Conservatives' link with the Ulster Unionists and since the DUP voted with Labour to support 42 day detention two years ago, a vote which the Tories saw as saving the struggling then Prime Minister's position.

Mr Paterson heavily hinted last year that a Tory Government would stop Sinn Fein MPs' allowances and expenses accounts if they continue refusing to take their seats and ruled out any more costly inquiries into the past.

Those moves were not been well-received by Sinn Fein, who are traditionally more wary of the Tories than of Labour.

Asked last night whether he was happy, as Secretary of State, to describe himself as a unionist, Mr Paterson said: "Yes, absolutely," adding: "The only people who can change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland are a majority of the people of Northern Ireland."

He added: "There's a cabinet meeting (today) and I'll be speaking up for Northern Ireland.

"I think it is really good to have a Secretary of State who is really partisan in the cabinet speaking up for everyone in Northern Ireland."

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey, whose party has an alliance with the Tories and who has worked closely with Mr Paterson, welcomed the appointment.

"Owen's sterling commitment to Northern Ireland has been amply demonstrated during his time as shadow secretary of state," he said.

"And, in stark contrast to his Labour predecessor, Owen will have no ambiguity in stating his support for the Union. We can be certain that he will be a strong, positive voice for Northern Ireland at the cabinet table."

It is widely expected that Sir Reg is to tender his resignation to the Ulster Unionist executive on Saturday but the veteran politician declined to comment on his future.

Congratulating Mr Paterson on his appointment, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie warned the new resident of Hillsborough Castle that he faces immediate tests "in terms of Tory public spending cuts and the publication of the Saville Report into the events of Bloody Sunday".