Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

A lightweight or nobody's fool?

Newly named Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers leaves No 10 Downing Street in central London

The Barnet Bugle was blowing its own trumpet after David Cameron appointed its local MP Theresa Villiers Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It’s the first time the Chipping Barnet constituency in London has had a politician in the cabinet in over 40 years.

It was just plain old Barnet in those days. But ironically the area’s last MP who served on the Tory Cabinet was Reginald Maudling who helped re-write the history of Northern Ireland, not exactly his favourite place.

Maudling was Home Secretary at a time of repeated crises in the province. He reluctantly introduced internment and controversially called Bloody Sunday self-defence by the Parachute Regiment, earning him a smack from Bernadette Devlin in the House of Commons.

He was also slightly injured by an IRA letter bomb but he will be forever remembered for his caustic comment after his first visit to Northern Ireland. He said: “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.”

Ms Villiers will undoubtedly be more cautious with her words but 40-odd years on, she may wonder if much has changed since Maudling.

For Villiers got her promotion from the Government’s Transport Department at a back-to-the-future time in Northern Ireland. Massive steps forward in terms of the peace process have been blighted by equally huge steps backwards of nightly riots in north Belfast.

And if she’s been contemplating how the past is still impinging on what’s happening now in her new political parish, she may have also had a wry smile at how her own back story has made a big news story.

The Irish News devoted a full page to her forefathers — titled men one and all — who played prominent roles in the Famine and the Plantation of Ulster.

She will doubtless be keen to ensure that her contributions to Northern Ireland’s future won’t be defined by her ancestors’ roles in the island’s past.

Just what she will bring to the job depends on who or what you believe. Sketch-writers on Tory newspapers in London yesterday dismissed her as a Westminster lightweight and brushed off the job as relatively minor in the Government.

But others insist she’s nobody’s fool. One constituency insider said: “She is friendly, clever and willing to listen but she has a sharp mind and she’s a free spirit.”

Villiers grew up in North London and gained a first class law degree from the University of Bristol before furthering her studies at Oxford and working as a barrister and a law lecturer.

She served as an MEP for six years. She is a renowned Eurosceptic who has voiced loud opposition to the Euro, the European Commission and the extension of EU powers.

But in 2005 she quit Europe after she was elected to the Commons and after just seven months was appointed to the Shadow Cabinet by David Cameron who was said to have marked her as one to watch.

She was embroiled in the Westminister expenses row after the Daily Telegraph reported that the then-shadow transport secretary claimed almost £16,000 in stamp duty and fees for a south London home, despite having another in London only 14 miles from Westminster.

She said all claims were legitimate and within rules.

Her main base is in Arkley village in London. Her neighbours include DJ Tony Blackburn and comic Rufus Hound.

Former residents include actor Trevor Howard, comic Norman Wisdom and racing driver Graham Hill who died when his private plane crashed on the local golf course.

Villiers has gone out of her way to re-assure her Chipping Barnet constituents that she won’t be an absentee MP.

Only hours after the Prime Minister’s re-shuffle she said she would spend three days a week working for people who elected her.

She has told friends she won’t be overawed by her new job.

And it’s clear she will owe Mo Mowlam a debt of gratitude in opening the door in our male-dominated world of politics for a female Secretary of State, even though their styles and their views will be dramatically different.

It’s unlikely that her bodyguards will allow her to get on her bike for her job.

Earlier this year she broke her collar bone in an accident while cycling to work in London.

Her feelings may not have healed as fast after a putdown last year by Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail who named Villiers in the top 20 of his most irritating politicians at Westminster.

He growled: “She has a manner as cold as Sherpa Tenzing’s nose and a voice frosted by boredom. Listen to this one for a few minutes and you’ll be gnawing your knuckles in despair”.

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