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