Tory shadow who stayed in the sun

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The Independent Online
WITH THE chink of gin and tonic in the background, and the sun setting on the Aegean, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, Andrew Mackay, last night packed his bags for his return to Westminster.

The man whose critics say is not so much off message as on holiday, will prove that he can abandon the sun-lounger when the occasion requires by returning today to prepare for the recall of Parliament next week.

Mr Mackay was on a break in Namibia when the Good Friday peace agreement was signed and some say he compounded the error by failing to cut short his Greek holiday to visit Omagh in the wake of the bombing last week.

Dubbed the politician who never knowingly arrives home before the postcards, his absence prompted muttering among some MPs that he was in danger of becoming the Tory party's own Judith Chalmers when important matters of state needed his attention.

However, Mr Mackay, who has spent the past fortnight with his wife and fellow Tory MP, Julie Kirkbride, on the Greek island of Symi, yesterday defended his conduct by pointing out that he had been kept in constant touch with events in Ulster while abroad.

He was briefed in advance, by telephone, by government officials about the Prime Minister's decision to call a special Commons debate on anti- terror measures. On Friday he will visit Omagh.

"I think the last thing people want in Northern Ireland when there has been a bombing is to be gawped at. I didn't want to go until the funerals were over," he said.

Mr Mackay told The Independent from his hotel: "Mo Mowlem and Tony Blair briefly broke their holidays to go to Ireland because they have executive responsibility and needed to carry out various tasks ... The last thing that one wants is to play politics with 28 dead."

Mr Mackay and his wife were last night facing a tortuous journey home. The ferry from the small island was due to leave at 3.30am today for Rhodes to catch a 9am flight to Athens and an afternoon connection to Heathrow.

It is unlikely that MPs or ministers - such as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was duty minister for most of August - will be told to break their holidays.

The Tories are not planning to vote against the short Bill, and the Government will be able to marshal its massive majority in the Commons if there are unexpected problems in the Lords.

The recall means both the London and Dublin parliaments will have passed anti-terrorist measures in time for President Bill Clinton's expected visit to Belfast on the Thursday.

Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, who has agreed Mr Blair's formal request for a recall, today inspected building work in the Commons chamber, currently full of scaffolding for work to remove asbestos from the "loft" above its high ceiling.

The poles will be removed over the weekend and the chamber and other main areasmade ready for the sitting.

Having the MPs meet elsewhere was not considered on this occasion, although it has been in the past, including in the winter of 1940-1941 when the chamber was destroyed by a German bomb.