Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

No-nonsense Villiers puts her credentials on parade

Testing tenure: Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has grown in confidence
Testing tenure: Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has grown in confidence

Theresa Villiers' call last week for a republican march in Castlederg to be called off has put the secretary of state in the media spotlight.

At the height of the August silly season and with most of her Cabinet colleagues on holiday, she is suddenly one of the most prominent members of the Government.

Her competent media performances over the past few days were no doubt noticed in Downing Street. She is almost one year into her tenure as Northern Ireland secretary, her first Cabinet job. It has certainly been testing: there have been outbreaks of street violence as well as the G8 summit and the emotive issue of parades.

Local MPs and the Labour Opposition have been privately critical of her perceived lack of engagement, but in recent months she has grown more confident.

After the riots in Belfast over the Twelfth, she railed against the Orange Order for "encouraging mass protests in a highly volatile situation". Her meeting last week with the Derg Valley Victims' Voice led to her call for the Castlederg parade to be abandoned.

"There is no doubt that this deeply insensitive parade is causing great hurt and distress to many victims of terrorism," she said. "We condemn attempts to commemorate, or legitimise, terrorism."

After 56 police officers were injured in violence on Friday, she said: "If the loyalist protesters think they were somehow defending Britishness by doing what they did last night, they are utterly mistaken." Whether you agree with her or not, Ms Villiers has found her voice. It seems that adversity has brought out the best in her – a useful trait in a Cabinet minister.

She is perceived as something of an ice queen at Westminster but this summer she has shown unexpected passion.

Tory MPs, eager to articulate a more authentic Conservative message and chafing against the restraints of the coalition with the Lib Dems, have been heartened by her stance. She is backing the police and the victims against unruly republicans and loyalists alike.

David Cameron is still stung by his experience in September last year, when his reshuffle was branded sexist. He was planning another shuffle of his team earlier in the summer, but postponed it. When he does get round to it next month, he is likely to make few changes at Cabinet level.

Could Ms Villiers' confident performances encourage the prime minister to move her into a more frontline role?

It is possible. But Northern Ireland would be better served if Ms Villiers remained in post.

After all, she is just getting into her stride.

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