Ivan Lewis MP is now six weeks into his new job as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But what does he make of the place? Is he alone in thinking that the UK government has disengaged from NI? And is he serious about his Haass submission proposal of a public holiday to celebrate the peace process?
I caught up with him on Saturday morning at the DUP conference, hours after he had released Labour’s submission to the Haass talks into the public domain.
Politically Ivan Lewis has never lost an election, neither at a council level nor since he beat the incumbent Conservative candidate at his first attempt to take the seat of Bury South seat in Manchester in the 1997 election that saw Tony Blair’s New Labour sweep to power. Over the last eight years he has held many government and shadow posts. What about his new job?
The way I see this role is it’s about listening, it’s about learning, and then it’s about leading on issues where I think the Opposition in Britain can still make a difference and make a contribution whilst recognising most issues are devolved, leadership has to come from the Northern Ireland parties but we did have a special role in the peace process and I think we still have a special responsibility to make a contribution.
How has he found Northern Ireland in his first six weeks?
Well I’d say you shouldn’t make generalisations, but I find the people I meet very straight, very direct but equally very generous in wanting to help me in the early days of this role [to] get it right. So it’s refreshing in some ways. Of course it also raises a tremendous number of issues about the last 15 years and how much progress has been made. Undoubtedly a lot of progress has been made, however we all know there are serious tensions which exist and quite a lot of issues form the past that haven’t been dealt with.
But the overall message is that people want to engage. They also want UK politicians to engage too. And I think there is a sense that the perceived disengagement from the UK government is a problem and I think we have a role to play first of all in saying that’s not right, that Northern Ireland really desperately needs a fully engaged UK government.
I think we can also lead by example: we are going to engage, we are going to be here a lot, we are going to meet not just the politicians – I mean initially inevitably I’ve met lots of politicians – what I really want to do is from the New Year onwards is spend a lot more time with grass roots communities, learning about their challenges, their aspirations …
While balancing Westminster, constituency and family responsibilities, Ivan Lewis plans to be in Northern Ireland “at least twice a month [for] a couple of days at a time” in thenew year.
You’re quite right to say so far most of my visits have been associated with party conferences of one kind or another. And it’s been fascinating again, in the UK you don’t visit other political parties’ party conferences so for me to actually be at the UUP conference, the SDLP conference and now here this weekend at the DUP conference has been really interesting as much as anything else.
On the role of Shadow Secretary of State versus being the government’s Secretary of State?
First of all our job – the official Opposition – is to hold the government to account. It’s also to work with the Northern Ireland parties to understand where they’re coming from and what their views and concerns are.
But equally it’s our job to be creative. We want to be the government of the United Kingdom in 2015 so I think we also want to be people who are seen to have ideas, to be able to make a contribution. So for example, I’m very focussed on the fact that there is this challenge in many communities in Northern Ireland where you have this vicious circle of poor educational attainment, worklessness and intergenerational deprivation.
So as well as focussing on security, as well as focussing on reconciliation and the peace process, I think there’s a really big job to focus on economic and social challenges … I think that the underpinning of the peace process is tackling economic and social inequality which still afflicts far too many communities in Northern Ireland.
Is that where the British Government are falling short?
First of all they could be a lot more proactive in terms of jobs and growth more generally … Of course we welcome the inward investment conference that took place a couple of weeks ago and welcome the fact that the Prime Minister attended that. But having an active government focussed on working with the Northern Ireland Executive, on having a strategic approach to generating jobs and growth: I think they could do better.
Ivan Lewis singled out the implications of the UK government’s welfare reforms for Northern Ireland, the impact of the “the pernicious bedroom tax” (which Labour would scrap) and the financial penalty if they choose not to implement something that would be “grossly unfair”.
I think it’s very, very important that where we agree with the government we adopt a bipartisan approach. Very much on security-related issues you’ll find a very cooperative approach with the government. Where I agree with them we should say so.
As an example he said it was “great that they brought the G8 to Northern Ireland”.
We won’t be churlish about it. But also we have a duty to speak the truth. When I was challenged by the Secretary of State why I had accused her and the government of being disengaged, my answer was because every politician I speak to in Northern Ireland from every party feels that. Now if they all feel that then something is going wrong. There is a danger that the current government puts Northern Ireland in a box, puts a tick by it and says Northern Ireland is sorted when everybody here knows how fragile the situation is. The two governments – the UK government and the Irish government – were guarantors of the peace process and their continued engagement is very, very important. It’s crucial.
The news agenda this week has been dominated by dealing with and exploring Northern Ireland’s past: the Attorney General John Larkin revealed his proposals to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks which Peter Robinson described it as “effectively an amnesty”; a report described the cost of criminal justice agencies dealing with the past over the next five years (£190m); a Panorama programme alleging that an undercover army unit – the Military Reaction Force – had targeted suspected IRA members and killed at least 10 unarmed civilians; as well as a viable device on a bus.
Was Ivan Lewis surprised by the allegations against the British military?
I think concerned and surprised of course. There are a number of instances of collusion that have been highlighted in recent times. It’s one of the reasons that we believe a reformed HET or a new, successor body should be much more independent than the existing body and be given much tougher powers but also be able to investigate themes not just individual cases.
He felt that “most definitely” the HET (or its successor) should look at collusion.
I think that the fact [the HET] is part of the PSNI is not appropriate, both from an independence point of view and a resource and capacity point of view. I think the HET has done not a bad job. In lots of cases it has brought some truth to victims and we should acknowledge and recognise that. But equally there are some serious concerns that have been identified and have to be addressed …
I personally feel there’s a really strong case for looking at victims who were seriously injured not just fatalities which is another element of all of this.
On John Larkin’s statement:
I would say that the Attorney General’s comments were controversial, clearly. I think we shouldn’t attack the person: he has a right to say those things. I just don’t agree with him … because I think we all have to put victims at the centre however we address the past and their families. And it seems to me his proposals would neither bring sufficient assurances about truth nor justice. In those circumstances they can’t be right.
He talked about a moratorium on inquiries, he talked about essentially an amnesty – whatever the language – and I don’t think at the present time that that is an appropriate way forward. I’ve spoken to victims groups, to some extent I’ve spoken to relatives of victims. It’s true that they want different things: some relatives simply want truth, other relatives want truth and justice in terms of accountability for people who perpetrated acts of violence, other victims maybe want to draw a line. Perhaps a small minority want to draw a line.
Any system has to put the feelings and the views of victims and their families at the heart and I’m afraid I don’t think the Attorney General’s proposals did that.
Ivan Lewis’ submission to the Haass process on behalf of the Labour Party includes a section on truth recovery and talks about “those with relevant knowledge [being] encouraged to provide information”. What kind of encouragement did he have in mind?
Eames/Bradley talked about truth recovery in the context of people associated with organisations or institutions coming forward and providing information which is not quite the same as holding individuals to account. But gives people a sense of facts, of truth about what happened in particular communities and to particular victims. Now that is one part of a new comprehensive system to deal with the past and it was a part of Eames/Bradley that I think we should take seriously. Now how that would work needs a lot of thinking. For example, you may have truth recovery at a national level. But equally you may have a case for having it within local communities.
As an aside, QUB’s Prof John Brewer tweeted this morning with a comment on the recent re-emergence of the previously unfashionable Eames/Bradley report:
Haass is Eames Bradley for slow learners.
— Prof John D Brewer (@Prof_johnbrewer) November 24, 2013
Ivan Lewis said that the Parades Commission “needs to be maintained” and over time “there’s a case for devolving it” but the time is not yet right. Labour’s Haass submission proposed introducing an independent appeal as well as other measures to boost transparency.
… there should be more transparency on the basis on which the Parades Commission reaches its decisions. And also there should be a speedy opportunity to appeal dealt with by a separate group of commissioners [not involved with the original determination]. We also accept that there will always be security factors where the Commission will feel that they need to keep certain things confidential. We understand that, but making the process more transparent and more open is very important.
I’ve also said in our submission to Richard Haass that once those decisions are made and processes have been concluded, elected politicians locally and nationally have a duty to respect the decision of the commission. That is very important.
The Haass submission proposed a new public holiday in Northern Ireland to celebrate the peace process. Was it a gimmick (as I suggested in an earlier post) or a serious suggestion?
It’s very serious … This is a peace process that is lauded around the world and yet in Northern Ireland there is no opportunity for people to say look how much progress we’ve actually made over the last 15 or 20 years, look at the examples of reconciliation of communities working together, look at the fact that we have far less violence than we had during the Troubles.
So it would be an opportunity for all communities to come together and be proud of what has been achieved. And if you’re going to build a shared future, the foundations of that are to have a sense of pride about what’s been achieved, so I think a public bank holiday would be a really powerful way of doing that.
Ivan Lewis imagined “lots of events in local communities to focus on the progress, to focus on the projects where Northern Ireland has moved forward”.
It’s lauded around the world but if people here are not proud of it, don’t feel ownership of it [and think] it’s just about the politicians at Stormont, I think that’s a shame and it’s a missed opportunity …
In our submission we make it very clear that the date needs to be an agreed date – if it was a date linked to any specific agreement, that would be a problem – but I don’t think it’s beyond the wit of the parties to identify a date they could agree on.
The shadow Secretary of State has picked up on the level of conflict-related trauma across Northern Ireland.
I think the number of people that have been traumatised by the Troubles in one form or another is extraordinary. I don’t think outsiders get it at all. And I think it leaves a very lasting impact and it can leave an intergenerational impact too.
He described WAVE, with its trauma centres, as “a fantastic organisation”.
… in every community there should be comprehensive trauma services available to people to help heal some of the wounds … building on what already exists but I don’t think at the moment there is a comprehensive service and there ought to be.
Ivan Lewis was Minister of State for International Development in 2008–9 and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development from 2011 until he took ever the Shadow Northern Ireland job. Are there lessons and perspectives he will bring to Northern Ireland?
I don’t think any two [conflict] situations are the same but there are some issues which are worth focussing on. First of all security is very, very important. If you don’t have security and stability then moving to development becomes very, very difficult. Alongside that, you need diplomacy/political processes. But the third element is economic and social development …
If you look at conflict areas or zones there have been very different ways of dealing with the past. The South African truth and reconciliation approach. The Rwandan approach which was to move on, to draw a line. Northern Ireland needs its own approach which is right for Northern Ireland. But what it definitely needs is a very fundamental, very comprehensive approach which deals with the past because the level of trauma that many, many citizens in Northern Ireland have experienced … Healing some of the wounds is really crucial in terms of reconciliation [and] being able to build this shared future that people talk about.
Moving from what I describe as a ‘cold peace’ to a ‘warm peace’, I would like to see us aim to do that over a decade. That is where we need to go. But we can only get there – I think – if we deal adequately with the past and so far it seems to me that’s not been addressed.
In eighteen months’ time Ivan Lewis could be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – a role in which he’d be happy to serve. Then he’d have to face up to the cost of his Haass proposals!
He’s a confident performer, taking questions from delegates at the UUP conference less than two weeks into the job and unafraid to challenge Theresa Villiers. Spending as much time in Northern Ireland meeting real people, listening to their stories, and asking them questions must be his priority if he’s to make a difference with local politicians and hold Theresa Villiers to account in Westminster.
A question to commenters: who have been the most effective shadow Secretary of States in the past? And why?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.