House of Commons Champagne to the winner!
It seems like only a few weeks ago that I was sharing my experiences of the Whips’ Office with you but after a very short time indeed I was plucked from what was becoming rather a snug berth and asked to meet Ed Miliband.
I was asked if I would accept the position of Shadow Minister of State for Northern Ireland and I took almost five seconds to fully consider the ramifications of the offer before I accepted.
As some people may know, Ireland has been a passion of mine from long before I became an MP.
The utter heart stopping beauty of the landscape and the extraordinary characters that live in it make it one of the most exciting places on earth. The fact that such a lovely land and such a great people have suffered such agonies for so many years simply adds to the fascination and nothing made me prouder of the last government than the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the six Northern counties.
No-one can deny that the fates of Great Britain and Ireland are deeply entwined. We’ve breathed the same air for so long that a deep familiarity has grown but there have been times in our recent history when it was not the sweet smell of new mown hay but of cordite and CS gas wreathing the trees that has set the scene.
For far too long the music was drowned out by the crack and rattle of gunfire and the unforgettable dull thump of a petrol bomb exploding. Great poets, great writers, sprang from Ireland’s soil but the words we so often heard were those of hatred, fear and anger rather than of Yates, Wilde, O’Casey and Shaw.
Here in Ealing we have been close to the realities. Thousands of men and women came from Ireland – and were welcomed – to this part of the world to build the canals, the railways and viaducts, the roads and houses and to work in the hospitals and factories. On the darker side we have seen the bombing of the BBC at White City and of the old “Feathers” – the then Town House – so much more recently. Bomb making materials were found only a few years ago in Hanwell and it is undeniable that the threat from so-called “dissidents” is very real and very, very dangerous.
Having spent over ten years on the Northern Ireland Select Committee I know the territory well and if my first shadow Ministerial meetings have been with the Police Service of Northern Ireland rather than the politicians at Stormont then that is the reality of the situation on the ground.
I couldn’t have asked for a better job and I mean to give it my very best – but not at the cost of Ealing North.
It is not often realised that all Ministers are also MPs (except for a few of those draped in ermine at the posher end of the Palace of Westminster) and have the same constituency responsibilities as do back-benchers.
Government Ministers get paid an additional salary and this lets them employ extra staff to help out with constituency casework but no such luxury is available to us insubstantial “shadows”.
However; I’m not giving up any of my duties and responsibilities in Ealing North. Surgeries every Friday evening and Monday morning will continue as usual and I’m still living in Hanwell.
One of the few advantages of our proximity to Heathrow is the extraordinary freedom to travel that we enjoy and I can get into the airport for about 6.30 in the morning and be in Belfast by 9am.
Coming home the same evening makes me feel like a cross-sea commuter but it can be done – even if I feel increasingly guilty about my burgeoning carbon footprint.
Sadly; many meetings have to be face-to-face and the travel is essential. I will, however, continue to do my best to pare it down to the minimum although prison visits and the like really cannot be re-arranged.
I’ve been wondering if there is a better way of ordering our affairs than having Ministers remain as MPs but cannot see any realistic model that could be substituted for that which has grown up over the years. I make this solemn promise that I will not let Ealing North fall by the wayside even when I am immersed in the Northern Ireland Office budget and police levels in South Armagh.
I’ve come to value our Ealing Christmas rather more as I see the importance of the season to those in Northern Ireland and their determination to hold on to the sort of normality that we take for granted. I can’t help but contrast the joy of carols around the tree in Northolt Village and the Christmas lights of Hanwell and Pitshanger as well as the new Santa’s Grotto on Ravenor Park Farm with the same carols, the same trees, the same Christmas lights and the same holy reverence for Advent and the Christmas birth of Christ in Ealing and Northern Ireland.
I hope that I can be allowed to use this opportunity to wish the very best of the season to all my constituents, a happy and Holy Christmas to those who understand the real significance of this time, and every best wish for a peaceful and prosperous New Year to one and all.
Like most people who never really grew up I love Christmas cracker riddles and the appalling jokes you find in them.
I’m not much one for jokes at the moment but here is a Christmas test and the first person who contacts me with the correct answer gets a bottle of House of Commons champagne.
Where in central Ealing is there a public sign showing the way to Pitshanger Lane but spelling it as “Pittshanger”?
Look around our beautiful borough and let me know when you spot it.
Peace and joy to all.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Stephen Pound from an original article published in the Ealing Gazette
17 December 2010