Helen Liddell in the Press

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Liddell backs MP's actions over Ahern trip


SCOTTISH secretary Helen Liddell and Irish premier Bertie Ahern last night both backed the actions of Frank Roy, the Labour MP whose intervention stopped Sunday's planned visit by the taoiseach to the west of Scotland.

Ms Liddell told The Herald that Mr Roy was fully entitled to raise concerns about the timing of the event, soon after the Old Firm match, despite the widespread controversy he has provoked. She also expressed full confidence in him as her private parliamentary secretary.

His action also appeared to be backed on the other side of the Irish sea last night by Mr Ahern, who has accepted an invitation to come for an official visit to Scotland at a later date.

Ms Liddell spoke on the phone to Mr Ahern last night, and an Irish government spokesman said he had been "delighted" to postpone the visit after appreciating in full the potential for trouble.

It was also being pointed out late last night that crucial meetings relating to the Irish peace process are being held this weekend, with both British and Irish governments desperate to avoid anything that could derail them.

John Reid, the new Northern Ireland secretary, last night declined to comment on the row involving Mr Roy, his former PPS.

Last night, Ms Liddell said: "When Frank Roy advised against the visit, he was doing what he thinks is right as a constituency MP, acting in accordance with what he thinks is in the interests of his constituency."

Earlier yesterday, a Dublin source said the concerns raised by Mr Roy could not be ignored, but added: "If there was a slight on the Scottish people, it was a slight by the local MP."

However, a senior UK government minister said: "Frank Roy was acting in a thoroughly responsible fashion. The story here is not who said what to whom. Mr Ahern was right to avoid the political downside of a possible tension-filled event."

Meanwhile, Downing Street brushed aside any suggestion that the Northern Ireland office had been involved in urging the taoiseach not to attend the ceremony. Tony Blair's spokesman insisted the decision came from Dublin.

As Mr McLeish moved swiftly to repair the damage by formally inviting Mr Ahern to Scotland soon, opposition MSPs scorned Labour's role in the affair, accusing ministers of backing away from bigotry instead of confronting it.

John Swinney, SNP leader, demanded an apology to the taoiseach from Mr McLeish - and failed to get it - while David McLetchie, the Tory leader, accused Dr Reid and Mr Roy of "pressing the panic button" and handing victory to the bigots.

Even the Liberal Democrats, Labour's Scottish coalition partners, rounded on the executive with Nicol Stephen, junior external affairs minister, saying: "That a visit by the Irish prime minister has to be cancelled due to a football match is quite frankly pathetic."

Mr Swinney challenged Mr McLeish during first minister's questions. He wanted to know why a Westminster Labour MP had intervened when Strathclyde Police had made it absolutely clear it was perfectly safe for the taoiseach to visit Scotland.

He added: "Sources in the Irish government are telling us if people are paranoid about the unveiling of a cross it does not say much for the so-called brave new Scotland."

A plainly uncomfortable Mr McLeish distanced himself from Mr Roy and said: "Any visit of the taoiseach would have been warmly welcomed. We have very strong links with Ireland and we want to retain them.

"I will be extending a formal invitation to the taoiseach to join with me to discuss issues of importance to the two nations but also in relation to a possible sporting visit and indeed to continue the visit planned for this weekend."

Most Scottish political figures reacted with horror to the decision by Mr Ahern to stay away because of sectarian pressure.

George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, said Scotland now appeared "like Mississippi".

Donald Gorrie, Lib Dem back bencher, accused Mr Roy of "stoking the fires of bigotry". He added: "Those few morons on either side of the Rangers-Celtic feud who are liable to become violent will feel more justified. Celtic fans will feel snubbed and Rangers fans will see another Irish plot."

Dennis Canavan (Independent, Falkirk West) tabled a motion regretting the sectarian image of Scotland portrayed by the cancellation of Mr Ahern's trip.

Cara Henderson, the campaigner against sectarianism through her group Nil by Mouth, said: "It makes me very depressed and in a sense I think it is a day of national embarrassment for Scotland. I think it is ridiculous that it has come to this situation."

Mr Roy refused to bow to the pressure, saying: " I would not be doing my duty to my constituents if I thought there was any chance something was going to go wrong on Sunday night and not pass on those fears to the Irish government."

9 Feb 2001