Northern Irish Secretary denounces ‘dangerous’ Remain claim

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Irish Secretary, has attacked suggestions that Brexit will destabilise Ulster as “scaremongering of the most irresponsible and dangerous kind”, according to the News Letter.

She claims that there is strong support for peace in the province, and that leaving the EU would not necessitate a ‘hard border’ between the UK and Ireland because of long-established, bilateral agreements between the two countries.

Left unsaid, but also true, is that British foreign policy should not be directed by the threat of violence from terrorist groups.

Davies spells out Welsh Conservatives’ whole-life care plan

Writing in The Times (£), Andrew RT Davies has put the NHS front and centre in the Tory campaign for the Welsh Assembly, promising to “lead a government that delivers a health service that is fully-equipped and properly resourced, supporting our treasured staff”.

This is part of a wider strategy which sees the Conservatives trying to pitch a whole-life package to voters, from improved access to childcare to capping weekly costs for elderly care.

It comes on top of a promise of tax cuts, with Wales Online reporting that Davies is aiming for a 2p cut in the income tax.

As I wrote last week, in recent polls the Welsh Tories have slipped slightly and slipped into third, behind the nationalist Plaid Cymru.

Davidson closes the gap on ailing Labour

After a slight dip a couple of months ago, the Scottish Conservatives are now back to polling neck-and-neck with Labour in a close-fought battle to become Scotland’s opposition.

The Times (£) reports on one of a string of recent polls which show them drawing even, which will be a welcome boost to Ruth Davidson’s realistic, opposition-focused campaign – which has also sought to woo unionist voters with a “new campaign for the Union”.

Another sign that the parties may be trading places is The Herald’s discovery that the Labour brand has actually become toxic in Scotland, with support for the party’s key pledges falling when voters are told whose idea it is – a position with which Tories will be painfully familiar.

Ulster Labour rebel and contest election as SDLP breakaway group mull new party

Labour’s long-suffering Northern Irish branch has rebelled against the London leadership and registered a new party in order to contest next month’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

According to the News Letter, the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee has a clause in its constitution stipulating that it will disband when Labour lifts is ban on contesting elections in the province – which it has traditionally upheld in order to maintain an alliance with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, which returns three MPs.

Meanwhile, a schism in the SDLP  has led to reports that some ex-members might form a new group, the Belfast Telegraph reports. A clutch of members, including three councillors, have quit the party’s West Tyrone branch during a dispute over candidate selections.

They currently sit as ‘Independent Social Democrats’, but are actively considering launching a new vehicle to challenge the SDLP. This week also saw Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, attacked in the Irish Times for ‘anglophobia’ after an anti-Tory rant.

SNP clash with Labour and Greens over tax and oil

The Scottish Nationalists suffered a fresh assault on their progressive credentials this week when the IPPR Scotland, a centre-left think tank, found that Labour’s tax-raising plan would raise four times as much revenue as the Nationalists’ own.

The Herald reports that the difference over sticking to the Chancellor’s plans for income tax amounted to £1.2 billion for Labour’s proposal, against only £300 million for the SNP’s, in a row which highlights how new powers are undermining the Nationalists’ “talk left, walk centre” model of government.

Nor have they been spared conflict on their side of the constitutional question. The Press and Journal relates that the SNP has been drawn into a row with the Greens, likely to be the other separatist party in the next Scottish Parliament, over the latter’s plan to shut down the North Sea oil and gas industry within the next two decades.

Unionists set sights on education in Stormont battle

Both of Northern Ireland’s main pro-Union parties have made the news with plans for education this week. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader, has hinted that her party might take Education as its first choice of ministry when forming the next Executive.

Previously the DUP have used their first pick to take the Finance portfolio – which would presumably now fall to Sinn Fein – but Foster claims her party is coming under “a surprising level of pressure” on the doorsteps over the province’s schools.

Meanwhile the Ulster Unionists have called for an end to Northern Ireland’s divided education system, according to the Belfast Telegraph. Mike Nesbitt, the leader, claims that the current model breeds sectarianism, and moots a single system as “a virtual inoculation job” against community divisions.

This comes as he prepares to lead the UUP back into the Executive, which it walked out of in August last year over the continued activities of the IRA.

Jim Allister, leader of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice, has called for British ministers to replace the Executive, scrutinised by the Assembly.