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'My heart will always be with the people of Northern Ireland'

Former Labour Secretary of State gives up brief in reshuffle

By Liam Clarke

Outgoing Shadow Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has vowed to continue working in Northern Ireland and pledged to help to heal the legacy of the past.

As part of the Labour reshuffle it was announced yesterday that Mr Woodward would be leaving the Northern Ireland brief. He has been replaced by the little-known Vernon Coaker.

Millionaire Mr Woodward, who refused his ministerial salary for the three years he was Secretary of State here, has considerable pull in the business world and travels frequently to America.

His wife Camilla is part of the Sainsbury supermarket dynasty and it is said that he is the only Labour MP with a butler.

“I would do anything to help people from Northern Ireland. I could help recruit business investment in Northern Ireland — I have got a lot of work experience in America and Hillary Clinton remains close. If there was a role in helping deal with the past I am at Northern Ireland’s disposal. I love the place and my heart will always be with its people,” he said.

He heaped praise on Co-Operation Ireland, the cross-border peace building charity, and its chief executive Peter Sheridan, a former senior PSNI officer. However, he said it was too soon to say if he would be playing an active role in helping the body secure more funding.

Mr Woodward spent much of Friday briefing his successor, who is MP for Gelding near Nottingham, into the job. Mr Coaker is a former teacher with a political background in the Home Office and policing. He was a surprise appointment but has acted as the Labour Party whip on Northern Ireland issues and he worked closely with Mr Woodward in that role.

Reports that Mr Woodward was fired or chopped from the shadow cabinet appear wide of the mark. He failed to be elected to it last year but was asked to continue by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.

“When Ed became the leader he asked me to stay on. I did because I believed in what had been achieved in Northern Ireland and at that time, before policing and justice was devolved, it seemed possible that the political settlement might not succeed. However, I made clear to him that it was important that sooner rather than later a new person would take over.”

He added that he had asked for a meeting with Mr Miliband at last week’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool and told the leader that he would like to go. He was then told of the planned reshuffle and formally tendered his resignation on Thursday night, the evening before the changes were announced.

Speaking of his new appointment Mr Coaker said: “It’s an honour and a privilege to be appointed as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with all the people of Northern Ireland, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, building on the successes of Northern Ireland's cross-party Executive. However as we build for the future we must remember the events of the past and never forget the communities that were damaged and the lives that were lost.”



Questions for Shaun Woodward

Q What have been the impact of the coalition cuts on the province?

A Northern Ireland is still a special case. In any other part of the UK the cuts create huge difficulties but in Northern Ireland they play into a peace process which still remains in its early stages and has still not achieved its maturity. The coalition has got to be careful not to take the process for granted.

Q Is there a link between inter-communal violence and poverty?

A Poverty can never be an excuse for violence but if you have pockets of deprivation there is a danger of significant numbers of young people being seduced into paramilitary activity. You need people like Co-Operation Ireland to address those things. If you don’t deal with sectarian legacy issues they will come back to haunt you.

Q Do you believe Labour’s Northern Ireland branch should be allowed to contest elections?

A In principle, I believe in democratic parties fighting elections. However, we can’t ignore the mess the Conservatives got themselves into in Northern Ireland. A future Secretary of State may have to act as honest broker and that requires neutrality. It is difficult to have neutrality if you have compromised your position in an election.|

Q Have the Tories moved to the right since entering Government?

A Without question. The Liberals have enabled them to proceed with the most draconian cuts in public spending that we have witnessed in our lifetime. If there had been a simple Tory majority they would have found it very difficult to get away with anything like as much but unfortunately they have the fig leaf of a quasi left of centre Liberal party saying it is justified.

Q Is this the right time to devolve corporation tax?

A The trade unions have the right argument. How will this help the people in the public sector whose jobs will be lost in their tens of thousands to pay for a corporation tax reduction? We need to rebalance the economy long-term but right now people are being crushed by the effects of this recession. When one in five young people can’t get work and 40,000 people are expected to lose their jobs this is really risky; it is high risk, high wire major gambling.

Q Does the Executive have sufficient access to Downing Street?

A When the Government in Northern Ireland says it has a special case on an issue Owen Paterson and the Prime Minister have a responsibility to give it special consideration. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is granted but this Secretary of State seems to regard it as a badge of honour to refuse access to the Prime Minister. It is not a badge of honour and it weakens Northern Ireland.

Q Is the time right to move to a system of opposition politics here?

A That is a judgment to be made by the people in Northern Ireland but I sense we are not there yet.

Q You support an inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. How should other items in the past be handled?

A The recognition payment was a mistake but there was a spirit of reconciliation within the Eames-Bradley model. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to shrug and say ‘I can’t get consensus on how to deal with the past’. If we took that attitude there would never have been a peace process.

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