Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

The X Factor fan who loves Spurs ...meet Labour’s new man in Northern Ireland

Vernon Coaker

Labour’s new shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker admits his experience of Northern Ireland is limited. Tom Moseley puts him through his paces as he gets to know the brief

Q Your predecessor said the Northern Ireland Secretary was restricting the First and Deputy First Ministers' access to Downing Street. How would you change this?

A It's important that, given the history of Northern Ireland, the political representatives do feel they've got access to the Prime Minister on a regular basis. That is symbolically important and practically necessary. It's not within my gift to decide but it should be done.

Q Where do you stand on the devolution and reduction of Northern Ireland's corporation tax rate?

A We've not come to any final decision about it yet, it is something we need to consider. We need to reflect on a number of things, like the impact on the rest of the UK and the cost to the block grant.

Q Given calls for urgent action, when will you make up your mind?

A We need to look at it. I can't say at the moment exactly when we'll come to a decision on it.

Q Would you support the idea of a truth commission to deal with legacy issues?

A I think it's difficult. It appears to me that if something doesn't have the backing of all sections of the community it's difficult. But Northern Ireland has experienced difficulties before and overcome them and things people would have regarded as impossible have been made possible.

Q How about payments for the families of Troubles victims?

A I think people felt that was difficult because it seems to place a price on someone's life. But I do think the way forward is for talks to take place, and an attempt to try and agree a process. Obviously, it can't be done without the agreement of all sections of the community.

Q How often have you been to Northern Ireland in the past?

A I wouldn't say I've been a lot, but it's three or four times. I went there as a government whip, and went there as policing minister. That's where I got to know many of the political representatives here. My |intention now is to get to |Northern Ireland and meet |people.

Q How often will you be over here from now on?

A I don't want to interfere, but if I'm to have any credibility I have to make sure I go to Northern Ireland and speak to people in Northern Ireland from across the community. I've been once, and I'm going again next week. Once every two or three weeks, something like that. My intention is to go regularly.

Q You criticised the government's action over Pat Finucane — how would you address future calls for inquiries?

A The starting point has to be where there's international agreement that there should be inquiries, that should be honoured. Where we go to now should be a matter for all-party talks.

Q Would you rule out further inquires?

A No, but without a process set up, you will just get this ongoing debate and argument.

Q Do you support ending the PSNI's 50/50 recruitment policy?

A The 50/50 quota has made a big difference. Everyone now realises the importance of having a PSNI that reflects the community. I wouldn't go back to a 50/50 recruitment, but I do think it's something that needs to be monitored.

Q Owen Paterson recently warned the Northern |Ireland Assembly that it risked losing credibility unless it started to deliver. What do you make of Stormont's performance so far?

A I would go for a more supportive approach. They've not got a programme for government but there are decent, hard-working people there.

Q Do you think double jobbing between Westminster and Stormont should end, and how should this be done?

A I think it's something everyone believes should finish.

Q Should Sinn Fein take their seats in Westminster?

A I think Sinn Fein have got their position, it's well known, they seek to represent the people of Northern Ireland in the way that they do. I think the important thing for us is to continue to do what we can to support the political and peace process there. Demanding things that aren't going to happen, I'm not sure that's helpful. Their commitment to the political process is the key.

Q The Coalition is looking at the so-called West Lothian Question, which could see Northern Irish MPs stripped of the right to vote on English-only issues. Would you support this?

A We have a UK Parliament. We don't want to create two tier MPs. Those MPs from Northern Ireland who take |their seats in the UK parliament have a right to vote on all matters.

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