Do we really need a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?
When the House of Lords carried out an inquiry into devolution way back in 2002 Bill Jeffrey, then political director of the Northern Ireland Office, described the role of the Secretary of State:
“It is a false dichotomy to say that the Secretary of State is either Northern Ireland's man in government or the government's man in Northern Ireland. He tries to be both"
The question today is whether there is a legitimate role for either function.
Jeffrey was echoing the evidence of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell, who said her role was "to be the voice of Scotland within the Cabinet and also to promote the Government's policies in Scotland.”
At the time The Northern Ireland Office still had responsibility for policing and justice and the new political structures were in their infancy, and few questioned the need for the post. The Scottish Labour Party dominated the Scottish Parliament and was in government at Westminster, the same applied to Wales, and so therefore Liddell’s assertions seemed plausible and democratically acceptable.
Yet today Northern Ireland has its own Assembly and Executive which has its own mandate and policies, whilst the Tories run Westminster yet have very little representation in Scotland, are a minority in Wales and have none in Northern Ireland.
A glance at James Brokenshire’s voting record, especially on issues like Welfare Reform, demonstrates that his views on a range of issues are not convergent with any of the main parties currently sitting in the Assembly.
So how can an individual, however talented, represent Northern Ireland when he is not a member of a party in government here and follows a different policy agenda?
Former Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy said: “My role is not simply one presenting the views of the Assembly but of presenting the views of Wales.”
He did not explain how he determined “the views of Wales”, what they were, or how they differed from those of the Welsh Assembly.
So in terms of representing the views of Northern Ireland to government a Secretary of State will either “present” what the Assembly has already said or else give an interpretation of what “the views of Northern Ireland” are or a combination of both.
Is there any real value in that? Say what you like about our own ministers but they are all more than capable of speaking for themselves.
Some may argue that, given Brexit, it is vital that Northern Ireland’s interests are fully considered in any new European settlement. But that’s already been covered off – our Executive is to have direct involvement in the process.
The Minister also has responsibility for the Northern Ireland budget but the way that works is that he retains the funds for running his own office and gives the vast bulk to the Executive and has no control over how that money is spent. So he has no accountability to Parliament for what the devolved Assembly does or how it spends its money.
Other roles include responsibility for the overall management of the peace process. Here progress is not possible without the consent of the major political parties in Northern Ireland. There is therefore responsibility for issues that are not in the Minister’s power to resolve which breaks one of the first principles of managing anything. Past evidence suggests that when crises strike our politicians turn up at Downing Street rather than Hillsborough Castle for resolution.
So isn’t it time that the role was re-considered? Back in 2002 the House of Lord recommended the abolition of the role of Secretary of State for Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland because of the policing and justice function and the state of the peace process.
The post holders were regarded as having little to do. Helen Liddell, for example, even had time to take day time French lessons. Other were given two jobs to keep them occupied. Alistair Darling, for example combined the Scotland job with Transport, Des Browne with Defence and Peter Hain Northern Ireland with Work and Pensions.
Nothing was done but much has changed. We now have a position where different parties are in power in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to Westminster and the notion that an individual whose party has no support in a country can effectively represent its interests is beyond most politicians instincts and capabilities and democratically questionable.
Given the growing constitutional crisis within the UK and the uncertainty about our future in Europe one solution might be to scrap the lot and replace them with a single Cabinet Minister with responsibility for inter-governmental relations. This would provide a consistent and coherent approach to devolution and end the deceit of “representation.” It would also save money, as a glance at the latest report and accounts for the NIO will attest.
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