What is the point of the Northern Ireland Secretary?

These days  the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has little to do except polish her or his credentials for a better job. The tactic seems to have worked well enough for Owen Paterson who remained a favourite of the Conservative right by positioning himself on a  number of subjects like an EU referendum and climate change  a step away from, but not actually  at odds with David Cameron. Paterson’s positioning incidentally, highlights  Cameron’s fuzziness over a number of issues that is making his party restive.   Paterson was allowed to turn himself into a semi-public lobbyist for issues on which the cabinet hasn’t a firm line – a novel position for one of the Cabinet’s own members. For this he probably has  the nature of coalition politics to thank; what is sauce for the  Lib Dem goose is sauce for Tory gander.

Local issues like Assembly reform, lower corporation tax and dealing with the past for which he mildly campaigned always seemed unlikely to succeed, however much we were kept being told they were on the agenda, really. It’s hard to resist the cynical thought that they were little more than fidgeting.

His successor Theresa Villiers has arrived “under pressure” from her old job as minister of state at Transport over the West Coast main line fiasco. Will Hutton in the Observer is not the only one to pass a scathing verdict.

It’s a massive passing of the buck by frightened and callow politicians and top officials. Bluntly, the permanent secretary should be considering whether his own position is tenable, and so should the former transport secretary Justine Greening and her former minister of state, Theresa Villiers.

But Hammond (now at defence) and Villiers (now in Northern Ireland) as ideological conservatives had, and have, no idea about how capitalism operates – about how companies manage risk or what drives innovation. They believe in the crude Thatcherite notions about the magic of markets and individualism. A child could have told them that lengthening the contracts would increase the risk and open up more uncertainty. It also creates huge opportunities to game the system because nobody knows what rail passenger traffic and revenues will be in 12 to 15 years’ time. You can just make it up

As a political prospect, is Theresa finished even in a virtual non job before she’s properly started?


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

  • michael-mcivor

    No point having a brit secretary of state who has not got 1 vote in Ireland- no point having any of them free loaders over here- pity they cant look the vote like every other democrat does here-

  • veryoldgit

    What is the point of the United Kingdom? I’m and English nationalist and can’t see it myself and believe it should come to an end. Then N.Ireland wouldn’t have to worry about such things as Secretaries of State would it?

  • “Newly appointed transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has sought to insulate himself from blame as he was not in-charge at the time the mistake was made.

    McLoughlin blamed his officials for the shambles and three civil servants have been suspended. “The fault of this lies wholly and squarely with the Department for Transport,” he said.” .. Huffington Post link

    Patrick is new to the post but he should know that Ministers chair the Departmental Board so they are intimately acquainted with the decision making process, or should be. The DB also contains senior civil servants and independent members chosen for their commercial expertise. NI claims to follow this ‘best practice’ 😉

  • Reader

    veryoldgit: I’m and English nationalist and can’t see it myself and believe it should come to an end.
    English nationalist parties, where they even exist and stand for election, get minuscule votes. The parties that scooped up the vast majority of Westminster seats in England are all unionist. So you have a long uphill trek ahead of you.

  • Reader

    michael-mcivor: pity they cant look the vote like every other democrat does here
    Anyone up here who votes for the union knows that it comes with a secretary of state attached. Would you advise the local unionist parties that they will get a boost in the polls if they can get rid of the SoS? But I doubt that the existence of the SoS makes a big difference to the floating voter!

  • Pete Baker


    In answer to the post’s title question,

    To act as a fire-guard between the Prime Minister and a less than coherent NI Executive.

    Cameron seems to like it that way.

    Then there’s the nature of the agreement here.

    There is still the issue of national security, and other reserved matters. Take, for example, Paterson’s decisions on Marian Price and others.

    Don’t forget that the NI Executive are to be insulated from sensitive information and intelligence. Not that the NI Justice Minister, et al, are not to be trusted with such decisions…

    So, it’s either a NI Secretary of State, a Minister with responsibility, or the UK Home Secretary directly.

  • michael-mcivor


    ” Anyone up here who votes for the union ”

    Who votes for the union up here-are you talking about the anti-union unionist political partys who dont stand for elections in your union- the unionists only stand for elections in Ireland-

  • Reader

    michael-mcivor: Who votes for the union up here-are you talking about the anti-union unionist political partys who dont stand for elections in your union- the unionists only stand for elections in Ireland-
    I am referring to the Union that forms the United Kingdom. I had thought that the context would make it clear. Anyone who votes for parties that wish to stay in the union is accepting a Secretary of State as part of the package.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Reader, you are right of course but sometimes it gets contradicted. Several leading unionists and Orangemen have complained that the Parades Commission has no mandate and no authority on the basis that it was not appointed locally. Which sounds a bit like “no to British rule” to me.

    I have to admit I almost missed the fact that Theresa’s move seems to come at quite a convenient time.

  • GEF

    Rep/Nat Political parties (or members thereof) in NI who don’t agree with having a secretary of state for NI should never have supported the GFA 1998. For those who do not understand what job a Secretary of State does the answer is here for all to read:


  • Greenflag

    Look on the bright side . The SOS Theresa Villiers gets out of London for a few days a week and the good lady can now add to her political resume that she has travelled back in time to the 17th century and returned to tell a tale or two in the members bar 😉

    If this makes her feel like she’s visitor in chief to a lost tribe of cargo culters then maybe she’ll throw them a few coloured beads on her next foray ?

    Somebody’s got to keep an eye on the natives so that they don’t return to their cannibalistic and head hunting ways ?

  • Brian Walker

    Even with those reservations, this is no longer a real cabinet job, by general consent in Whitehall.
    The idea has long been to appoint a SoS for the Nations ( though the title is a problem) with the catch all of “national security” devolved to the Home Office or the local Justice Dept. We’re not quite there yet for the latter are we?

    But the main delay now is that this is not the time to make the Scotland Office disappear. And of course it’s handy to have a few lesser jobs around to spread between the coalition parties, even if some of them are ” of cabinet rank” ie not full cabinet posts, like this one still is.

  • veryoldgit

    Reader “English nationalist parties, where they even exist and stand for election, get minuscule votes. The parties that scooped up the vast majority of Westminster seats in England are all unionist. So you have a long uphill trek ahead of you”.

    I don’t disagree. Nevertheless it is a fact that polls show that many English people aren’t too fussed about the UK and in fact more English voters want Scottish independence than do Scottish voters. England only remains within the UK by default! Of course, things can change.. Who’d have the thought the SNP would ever achieve government?

  • sherdy

    The NI SoS position is nothing more than a ‘naughty chair’ for unruly Westminster MPs.

  • BluesJazz

    What’s the point of the NI Assembly?

  • iluvni

    What’s the point of the NI Assembly?

    No point, none whatsoever.

  • Not quite, iluvni. The point of the Assembly is to give certain people the illusion of power so that they don’t instead run around sh???ing in the nests of the rest of us.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Actually, I don’t think people have the illusion of power.

    When things go wrong they don’t blame the politicians in Stormont or threaten to change their vote.

  • Comrade,

    I didn’t mean “the people” when I said certain folks. I meant the ones on the hill.

  • Brian, I do not agree that the residual powers of the SOS, as outlined by Pete, are yet sufficiently unimportant to relegate to a second tier Minister or merge into a regions Ministry.

    Northern Ireland is not yet sufficiently politically stable either. I would revisit that question in a few years time, but not now.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Seymour, I am not sure how the presence of a presently-toothless SoS contributes to the stability of this place. Also, history shows that it is entirely straightforward for the British government to rush legislation through to create a cabinet post and return powers back to London.

    I guess the main reason the post still exists is because someone needs to have responsibility for security and other reserved matters as they pertain to NI, and that it would create problems with nationalists and the Irish governments if these powers were absorbed into the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence.

  • BluesJazz

    Why not just leave things to the NI Select Committee at the REAL parliament at Westminster, where all REAL power resides.
    The sandpit assembly doesn’t have any power, other than to block liberal legislation from the big boys in London on Abortion and gay marriage.
    Of course they can discuss Gaza and Afghanistan all day long, but why don’t they discuss telling the British treasury to stuff the £9 Billion subvention and remove all troops here?

  • Alias

    “Why not just leave things to the NI Select Committee at the REAL parliament at Westminster, where all REAL power resides.”

    One of the reasons that a SoS is still needed is precisely because of all those comittees where the SoS is a made a member to put forward NI’s interests. Without her, you’re a non-entity and your interests are not considered.

    It’s ironic that creation of the role of the SoS (at least in the case of Wales) was seen as a stepping-stone to devolution, whereas now it is seen as an impediemt to full devolution. Full devolution, of course, is actualy independence. So it’s a cosmetic demand in NI which hopes that if the SoS disappears then the devolved assembly will no longer be seen as a puppet parliament. The SoS still has all those powers that were derogated to him by Westminster, with the Assembly merely exercising those powers that he has devolved to it on his behalf. They must do so on the terms agreed or he can render their actions void as he is Westminster’s man in NI (as well as being NI’s man in Westminster).

  • BluesJazz

    Local councils on the mainland actually have more powers than Stormont:


    In fact Yorkshire enjoys more autonomy from the National government than Stormont.

    So, given we have local (parish) councils, albeit extremely parochial, do we need an assembly at all?
    Just make an 18 member North Irelandshire County Council? Would save a lot of money and might actually DO something.

  • Comrade Stalin


    We already tried direct rule. The British don’t like it, and most of us don’t like it. Why flog a dead horse ?

  • John Anderson

    Devolution is a process BluesJazz, once it has started it is impossible to halt. The only question is how fast that process accelerates.

  • I’d have to agree with Pete Baker @ 2:12 pm:. If the devolved assemblies are working (and in two of the three cases they are), then there may need to be a Minister for the devolved areas, but that should not itself necessarily qualify for Cabinet rank. After all, the “Minister for Europe” exists (it’s David Lidington — and I had to look it up) but is merely a Minister of State at the Foreign Office.

    As I recall, in both the present and the last parliament, such an aggregation of responsibilities was seriously considered. The trouble came, not from Whitehall, but from the devolved territories, who felt they were being “dissed”.

    At the moment the provision is for a PM and 22 paid Cabinet ministers. We currently have some 32 assorted bods entitled to attend cabinet meetings. Something has to give.

  • BarneyT

    Its all a bit screwed and emphasises the half-way house situation we constantly find ourselves in. If the SoS is our “man” in westminster, then why do we have MP representation taking up valuable space and resources in WestMinster, when our SoS could represent the region. I mean we do have our own parliament? Same applied to other “states” in the UK

    The (need for the ) SoS role has changed I would hope with increased devolution and is surely now less relevant than it ever has been? However, the first minister does not and will not represent all of N Ireland (in fact clearly he would not wish to being partisan), so I guess the SoS continues to serve a mediation role here.

    To me it stinks of colonialism and is there to remind us that we are on a short leash (as well as recognise that we are still unfit to manage ourselves, which is collectively true). Look at the distastful manner in which our senior politicians (any means necessary brigade) responded to the flouting of the parades commission ruling. Perhaps westminster is cutely aware that this level of unionist dissent still has legs and whilst we have a union, it represents some level of control.

    On another level if I was the first minister, I’d be quite insulted as it surely demonstrates that our “prime” minister role ranks poorly in the UK scheme of things. We’re not dealing with a Douglas Hurd, or Tom King here, but a sidelined English MP (removed from her post), and yet they outrank our main “man”?

  • “After all, the “Minister for Europe” exists (it’s David Lidington — and I had to look it up) but is merely a Minister of State at the Foreign Office.”

    Malcolm, David Lidington also had an NI connection:

    When Michael Howard was elected Conservative Party leader in November 2003, Lidington became Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but was not included as a member of the Shadow Cabinet. In May 2005, Howard enlarged the Shadow Cabinet, granting Lidington the right to attend it again.

  • lover not a fighter

    It probably depends on your point of view as to whether its good or bad but it does appear that the appointment of Theresa Villiers has put the NI SOS back in place as the political equivalent of the naughty step.

  • BluesJazz

    Who is responsible for the MI5 HQ at Palace Barracks?

    I can’t see the REAL Government allowing our wee pretendy ‘government’ having any say in security matters.

  • Surely what BluesJazz @ 2:00 pm should be asking is “Who is responsible for MI5?” Query. End of sentence.

    Beyond that, I do wonder about the precise wording of MI5’s published “Who We Are” statement — and the proper interpretation thereof: Our staff, headed by Director General Jonathan Evans, are largely based in our headquarters at Thames House in London. We also have eight regional offices around the UK plus a Northern Ireland headquarters. The Service is organised into seven branches, each with specific areas of responsibility, who work to counter a range of threats including terrorism, espionage and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

  • Eire32

    I guess the need for an SOS will diminish over time, as more powers are devolved, and we further sort out our differences.

    Our politicians need more powers, which will bring more responsibility. Watch tribal voting decrease when parties from either side start helping/hurting the economy.

  • BluesJazz

    We’re a £12 Billion liability to the mainland. And we would be the same to the Irish republic if it ever came to pass (not in the lifetime of anyone on here).

    The 2015 UK election will see significant cuts (real cuts-£billions) to that handout.
    That means massive school closures and health and social care budgets. For decades.
    How Stormont deals with that is scary. There haven’t been any real cuts from the mainland taxpayer as yet, but coming they are. And the (108!) mla’s will have to deal with reality. Something they’ve never confronted before.

  • Pete Baker


    “Our politicians need more powers, which will bring more responsibility.”

    Chicken, egg, chicken, egg…

    I’d like to see them exercise the limited power they have with more responsibility first.

    But that’s just me…

    Or are you just thinking wishfully, Eire32?

  • Brian Walker. The question should be ‘what is the point of Stormont as it’s now shown to be atrophied already after a term and a half and getting more bogged down the longer it goes on. The SoS and direct rule should be reinstated and send all those superannuated time servers back to their constituencies to prepare for a big pay cut.