Haven’t so far detected Theresa Villiers the reported new NI secretary showing the slightest interest in Northern Ireland or Irish affairs during her short political career. Quite a high flier aged 42 and a barrister and academic lawyer by background, she was elected to the outer London seat of Chipping Barnet in 2005 after years as a euro-sceptic MEP. Had it not been for the pressure on cabinet places due the coalition, she might have expected appointment as Transport Secretary in 2010 but had to settle for the deputy’s job. With at least two women sacked from the cabinet the NI Secretary’s job was a convenient promotion billet. It also took her safely away from the 3rd runway at Heathrow and the high speed railway line which she was bound to oppose for constituency reasons.
How she will deal with the persistent sexism of Northern Ireland’s establishment? Differently from Mo Mowlam, we can be sure. Will she take to lecturing the Assembly parties on their performance as her frustrated predecessor did? Will there be any sign of an agenda of any sort emerging from Westminster apart from chivvying? Bold moves on corporation tax for instance? I’m not holding my breath.The job has greatly reduced from the old pro-consular days to holding the ring over issues such as “national security.”
Owen Paterson’s reported appointment as Environment Secretary suggests that green policies will receive further demotion. It may have been less than he hoped for. Chris Grayling and Paterson are both right wingers but Grayling won party profile as a senior work and pensions minister while Paterson gained little from the NI job. Grayling’s appointment as Justice Secretary signals a shift to the right over human rights. Even more than Villiers he might have expected a cabinet post in 2010. He had been shadow Home Secretary in opposition and had been denied cabinet rank by the need to find cabinet posts for the Lib Dems.
As usual with most secretaries of state, Paterson’s departure will be welcomed locally. This of course is not the measure of his achievement in a rump of a job which survives only out of political necessity in Westminster. One idea for the territorial offices was to amalgamate them as a department for nations and regional under Ken Clarke. But as that came from the former Labour Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell it was an unlikely runner. Will dear old Ming be appointed to stffen the Union cause as Scotland Secretary? Watch the space. Villiers’ appointment confirms that David Cameron has no intention of abolishing the territorial secretaries of state or even amalgamating them with more substantial jobs as happened latterly under Labour. Abolition or amalgamation is unlikely to happen until after the Scottish referendum at the earliest.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London