Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Solid start for Secretary of State, but there are obstacles with the potential to cause chaos

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villiers has had a creditable first year as Secretary of State. She can point to solid achievements on her watch. As she says we are in a better position than we were a year ago, but there are still plenty of reefs ahead.

The signs of recovery remain fragile and could be set back by an eruption of unrest. We still don't know the Government's decision on the devolution of Corporation Tax – that has been kicked into the long grass until the end of next year.

Ms Villiers took up her post on September 4 last year. When I first interviewed her a fortnight later she hadn't much to say for herself and was keener to avoid pitfalls than spell out policy.

She clearly had no master plan: "Is there anything you can tell me straight?" I asked her in frustration. She was an unexpected choice for the job. Her previous reputation had been in aviation policy where she clashed with Boris Johnson over his plans for a new airport in London and instead pushed for high speed rail links to Manchester and Birmingham.

When David Cameron gave her the job, some thought it was a punishment posting. But she has now revealed that he gave her a definite mission which she has focused on. That mission was to make progress on a shared future and towards rebalancing the economy.

Ms Villiers isn't as in your face as her predecessor Owen Paterson but she has been purposeful, and has avoided spats with Sinn Fein and the DUP which characterised the latter part of Mr Paterson's tenure.

She has had luck as well as judgment and now commands a platform on which to move forward with confidence. The G8 was the big good news story of the year – it went off, she says, better than she could have expected. Everyone appreciated the stakes were high and everyone was on their best behaviour.

The old demon of sectarian division was only sedated by G8, not laid to rest.

During the current parading disputes Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness both played to their own constituencies like tribal chieftains, unable to muster a shared response.

Violence erupted at the end of last year's marching season, and it could do so this year too. Nobody knows how next week's republican parade in Castlederg will go, or how the loyal orders and protesters will conduct themselves for the remainer of the marching season in North Belfast.

The outcome is not entirely in Ms Villiers' control, but she and the Government have considerable influence. They can speak even most effectively if they can agree a strong common message with Dublin and Washington on what's expected.

The G8-branded economic conference which will be held here in October has strong international backing. Its potential can be used to focus minds on the need to keep things peaceful and move towards a shared future, just like the G8 meeting in June.

"There are serious risks to Northern Ireland that come with further disorder," Ms Villiers said, pointing out that the flags protests of last winter were shown around the world, damaging our image.

We can't a risk a repetition of that street disorder or violence. If that happens there will be no winners in the blame game; we will all suffer if things go wrong.

The Government's economic package comes, Ms Villiers concedes, without major economic resources. It should be beefed up and used as a carrot to encourage recovery and good political behaviour.

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