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Northern Ireland MPs put Theresa Villiers to the test... but her first |Commons question time proves rarely gripping

The last time Northern Ireland Questions took place in the House of Commons, on July 4, Aviation Minister Theresa Villiers was speaking in a debate about Heathrow expansion.

Few would have imagined that 16 weeks and one reshuffle later, it would be the MP for Chipping Barnet fielding the questions as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Alongside her at the despatch box, ex-soldier and 50-something rugby player Mike Penning was also making his debut as minister, as the Northern Ireland Office presented an all-new line up from the Owen Paterson era.

Facing them across the floor of the Commons was a full set of Northern Ireland MPs, those that attend Parliament at least, waiting to put the new Secretary of State through her paces for the first time.

As fate would have it, she had come to the House bearing good news — the threat level to Great Britain from terrorists in Northern Ireland had been downgraded to moderate.

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds was not happy, asking whether the move would be “both premature and somewhat counter-productive”.

MPs were assured of her vigilance to tackle dissidents.

As members took turns to welcome them to their posts and fire their questions over, Villiers and Penning flicked furiously through their ring-binders, and the new Secretary of State found a straight bat to play to every question.

When Labour MP Ian Lucas somehow shoehorned in her role in the disastrous West Coast Mainline tendering she replied that no, none of the £40m wasted in the train fiasco would come from the NIO.

A jibe about unemployment rates aside, Labour’s Vernon Coaker, her opposite number, was gentle, promising her a bipartisan approach to security.

There were plenty of tidy, if not exactly revealing responses to questions from the Northern Ireland MPs, while Labour members were keen to move the subject onto the economy.

Here Ms Villiers, a one-time Shadow Treasury Minister, was in more familiar territory, with a dig at Ed Balls following his recent visit to Northern Ireland.

The cordial atmosphere returned as Labour front-bencher Stephen Pound welcomed the news that HMS Caroline would “for ever nestle within the slightly chilly bosom of Belfast Lough”.

Here, for once, the MPs’ eyes turned up towards us as Ms Villers paid tribute to Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss — a doorkeeper in the Commons — who had campaigned to keep the warship in Belfast and was watching proceedings from the Press gallery.

By the end of the half-hour session, the House was packed with MPs getting their seats for Prime Minister's Questions.

Their chatting made it almost impossible to hear the final exchanges, which Hansard reminds us included a non-committal response to the Alliance’s call for talks on the past and a pledge to help the Irish Government over the Smithwick tribunal.

Overall, it was rarely gripping — but, as he took his seat next to her just before midday, Prime Minister David Cameron will have been relieved to see his surprise appointment had surely navigated her Northern Ireland Questions debut without mishap.

Threat level

“The change to the threat level does not affect our commitment to bearing down hard on the small minority of people who still seek to use violence and terrorism as a means to achieve political ends.”

Investment in NI

“Northern Ireland has seen some striking success stories, such as the investment by Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange.”

Corporation tax

“Real progress has been made on the issue. The working group on corporation tax concluded on Thursday, and we are now proceeding to write up our findings and will report them to the Prime Minister in due course. We have an idea of how devolved corporation tax might work in a way that would not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on business.”

Dealing with past

“It is important to find a way to deal with the legacy of the past in an inclusive way that recognises the pain caused to victims and survivors while helping everyone move forward towards a shared future. A way forward can be delivered only if people and political parties unite to build consensus.”

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