On Monday night I caught up with the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Ivan Lewis MP to get his views on welfare reform, the Secretary of State and his own future as he marks a year in the job.
I began by asking him, how he thought the Secretary of State was handling the current talk’s process that is on-going at Stormont? Ivan began by welcoming the fact that the government had finally moved to engage with the political process in Northern Ireland. He believes that some of the problems that currently exist here stem from the disengaged attitude that the British government has adopted since it came to power in 2010. Lewis believes that it is important for the Secretary of State to play the role of an honest broker in this process and not become too attach to one side over another.
I was curious; did he think the talks would be successful?
Well, is there a willingness for compromise, is there a willingness for leadership and because we know that to reach agreement on some of these issues requires political leaders to say some quite difficult things to their own natural supporters…we have got three years of elections in Northern Ireland, with one down and two to go. I have since I got this job expressed concern about how that would play out and politician’s willingness to take tough decisions.
For Lewis, he believes that our legacy issues can be solved but it is ultimately a question of political will from party leaders to solve these problems.
When I asked him who did he think was ultimately responsible for the stalemate, Ivan lays the blame across the parties. He believes that Unionism’s inability to compromise on some of the legacy issues and Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s inability to move on Welfare Reform are contributing towards the current stalemate. What Lewis ultimately wants is a “pragmatic agreement” that will be ultimately welcomed by what he believes is the great “silent majority” in Northern Ireland.
We then moved onto the perception that the current Secretary of State is too close to Unionist parties in her thinking, was that something he agreed with?
I have said in the past that it is absolutely crucial that the British government continues to play an honest broker role. If the UK government departs from that role then I think that adds to instability but it is crucially important that whilst there will be times when reassuring both communities is very important, if the UK government is not seen to play that honest broker role it actually fuels instability…so I think that every time the Secretary of State speaks she has got to reflect on the impact that her words have in terms of that honest broker role.
We moved on to discuss the role that he would envisage for the Irish government should he become the Secretary of State? Lewis wants a close relationship with his Irish counterpart as he praised the recent statements from the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan about the role that Dublin wants to play in the peace process. Ivan believes that the only way we can move big projects forward is by the two governments working together in a ‘cohesive and holistic” fashion.
I put to the Shadow Secretary of State that there is the hope from those opposing Welfare Reform that if we wait until the election of a Labour government next May that Northern Ireland could escape from implementing the reforms. Lewis has a more nuanced position on this topic as he told me that he would not expect Northern Ireland politicians to implement policies such as the bedroom tax, but he points out that if Labour comes to power next May it will not be able to reverse every aspect of the Welfare Reform plan. Lewis argued that it is fine for politicians to attempt to mitigate the impact of aspects of the new scheme but he calls it ‘totally irresponsible” for politicians to simply argue that we can do nothing on this issue.
Yet I was wondering what about his own proposals, he recently announced the creation of the Heenan-Anderson Commission, was this just another case of pointless musings that have seen in the past? The Shadow Secretary of State believes that ultimately the “proof of the pudding will be in the eating.” Ultimately he wants to shift the focus of the economic debate away from just jobs and growth towards looking at where that prosperity is going to and how can we use it to help disadvantaged communities. Lewis believes that this commission will be an essential part of framing the economic debate and can greatly help in building a shared future.
Enough about shared futures, what about his own future? With the possible departure of Jim Murphy as Shadow International Development Secretary could he moved out of his current portfolio?
I have made it very clear that I want to stay in Northern Ireland up until the election and beyond. I have expressed that view very clearly, I believe it is the responsible thing to do in terms of stability in Northern Ireland, I think we have an important role to play here. I have grown to feel very passionately about this job, about the people here and because of Labour’s legacy in terms of the peace process we have a unique responsibility. But also because of the vacuum that has been left by the current government over the last three years and I want to be part of the solution.
I concluded by asking him if we would see his own party leader, Ed Miliband making a visit here? Ivan told me that Miliband frequently asks about the situation here and is very interested in political developments. There is a possibility that he might make a visit here before the election to meet the party leaders, but nothing is confirmed at this stage.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs