Helen Liddell in the Press

Ur ye nae that bloke whit said thit devolution wid kill ra SNP stane died?

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Who really made the decision?


DID a little-known Lanarkshire Labour MP have the authority to act alone in persuading Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach, to cancel his visit to Scotland?

That question lies at the heart of the deep embarrassment heaped on Labour politicians in Scotland and on the country itself after the extraordinary events that led Mr Ahern to cancel, at the last minute, a trip to the Carfin grotto, in the constituency of Frank Roy, MP for Motherwell and Wishaw.

Mr Roy now has his place in history as the man who, single-handedly - if we are to believe ministers - persuaded the Irish government to call off the taoiseach's visit because it was a threat to public order.

Mr Roy is known to have signed his communication to the Irish government as the local MP. But the Irish were uncomfortably aware that he was also parliamentary private secretary to Helen Liddell, the Scottish secretary.

The very idea that the police could not safeguard a visiting head of government in the west of Scotland when they can handle thousands of Orangemen marching during Old Firm home games, was effectively rubbished in the Scottish parliament by Henry McLeish during first minister's questions.

Plainly discomfited, Mr McLeish made clear he disagreed with Mr Roy and said he had faith in the police to do their job. He went on to make a routine denunciation of religious sectarianism - but he did not offer the apology to the taoiseach demanded by John Swinney, leader of the SNP.

Mr Roy's initiative, which horrified many Labour MSPs who saw it as interference in the devolved issue of policing, raised the obvious suspicion that he was acting for a higher authority.

Not only is he PPS to Ms Liddell, but he had recently been PPS to John Reid, former Scottish secretary, who is now Northern Ireland secretary.

Although the Irish drew their own conclusions about Mr Roy's sense of his own importance as an international go-between, there is no firm evidence that he was doing what he was told by either of the two cabinet ministers.

Ms Liddell was invited to the unveiling of the memorial, but was not alone in being offered Irish hospitality. A series of Scottish ministers and local politicians also accepted - and then appeared to fall over each other in the rush to decline.

In Edinburgh last night this was being seen as a reluctance by Labour figures to be associated with what they feared would be a high-profile Irish Catholic celebration just after what could be a tense Old Firm clash.

The Herald understands the only minister who accepted and remained content to attend the ceremony was Brian Wilson, formerly deputy to Dr Reid at the Scotland Office and now a foreign office minister. He is also the author of a history of Celtic FC.

Dan Mulhall, the Irish consul-general in Edinburgh, invited leaders of all the main parties in Holyrood to the event. David McLetchie of the Tories and Jim Wallace of the Liberal Democrats both said they wanted to go but had other engagements. They made arrangements for colleagues to represent them. Mr Swinney accepted and said he would be there in person. This left Labour as the only party unwilling or unable to send its most senior figures to the Carfin ceremony. One by one, other ministers suddenly felt the need to call off. Jack McConnell, who shares an office in Wishaw with Mr Roy, pulled out on Monday. His department last night said he had cancelled because of a family engagement.

Ms Liddell made clear she would skip the unveiling in Carfin but would be happy to meet Mr Ahern in Coatbridge at a reception later. Dr Reid knew about the event and was said to be "relaxed" about it, although as Northern Ireland secretary he said he was unable to attend.

Whether by accident or design, Mr McLeish made clear his desire not to visit Carfin, although he condescended to meet Mr Ahern at Celtic Park. Peter MacMahon, the first minister's spokesman, was unable to tell reporters why Mr McLeish was free for a football match but not a cultural event.

The Irish could hardly fail to get the message as ministers fell like dominoes. Irish indignation was fuelled by the memory of the hero's welcome they accorded Donald Dewar during his visit to Dublin - motorcade, outriders, full-scale head-of-state treatment - and the ovation for Tony Blair in the Dail when he talked of the famine.

Now here was their own head of government, who had gone out of his way to strike a cordial relationship with Scotland, especially through the British-Irish council and a series of cultural initiatives, being snubbed.

If the Irish did consider the fact that Mr Roy, Dr Reid, and Ms Liddell are all Catholics, they did not make any play of the fact. It probably just added to their puzzlement.

"It never occurred to us," said one Dublin source. "To us they were just a bunch of Scottish politicians."

In Edinburgh, Mr Mulhall's alarm began to deepen when he received a fax from Mr Roy suggesting that Mr Ahern should cancel because his presence on the day of an Old Firm match could provoke disorder.

This left the Irish with a difficult choice. They could ignore the views of an unknown Commons back bencher from a part of Scotland with a history of sectarian conflict, especially after Rangers-Celtic games; or they could press on.

They decided to cancel because Irish officials took the view that ignoring the views of Frank Roy might encourage him to accuse the taoiseach's advisers of riding roughshod over Scottish public opinion.

At that point, the Irish were unaware of the strength of anger across Scotland because the country was being seen as capitulating to bigotry.

But any Scottish embarrassment at Labour's antics was as nothing compared with the rage of the Irish in Dublin.

The particular focus of Irish anger was Mr Roy himself - not so much that he had taken it upon himself to block the Taoiseach's visit, but because he was quick to claim credit for it.

In Dublin later, sources made clear their contempt for Mr Roy's behaviour. "If there was a slight on the Scottish people, it was a slight by the local MP," said a senior government figure.

This view was reinforced by a spokesman for Mr Ahern, who told The Herald: "We have nothing but goodwill for the Scottish people and their public representatives. We are sorry that one individual decided to go public on this issue."

Back in Edinburgh the Scottish Executive tried fitfully to repair the damage, suggesting that it had a limited role in what Peter MacMahon kept insisting was a private visit.

But most MSPs, including Labour's, took the view it was a strange kind of private visit where invitations went to a head of government from a consulate and were copied to the most senior politicians in Scotland.

The whole sorry incident serves as a reminder that Scotland still has trouble dealing with its central belt sectarian sub-culture despite the fact that famine commemoration is supposed to be a force for reconciliation between Britain and Ireland.

-Feb 9th