New blood but Secretary of State Theresa Villiers faces same old problems
The glass ceiling has cracked again over Hillsborough Castle. Forty years after the very first Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, Northern Ireland has only its second woman in charge.
There she was in Downing Street last Wednesday, emerging from David Cameron’s male-dominated Cabinet meeting.
As she trod out of the famous front door in her stiletto-heeled boots, the new Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, might well have asked herself; what in the name of British politics possessed me to accept the job?
I’m sure many of the previous 17 secretaries of state asked that same question and wondered if they had been handed a poisoned chalice.
They fell into two distinct camps over the past four decades: the ambitious big-hitters, who were on their way up the greasy political pole, or those who were either stuck on, it or already on the slide.
While Northern Ireland has proved the graveyard of political ambition for some, it has also been an opportunity for others to make a name for themselves. Ms Villiers belongs to the latter category.
Her academic, legal and political track-record to date is mightily impressive — First-Class honours, a Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford, a former barrister and lecturer, who, at the tender age of 31, was a member of the European Parliament and who, only seven months after her election as an MP, caught Cameron’s eye and was appointed Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Of course, the influence and presence of the secretary of state has diminished with the transfer of so many powers to the Stormont Executive.
Some may even question as to whether there is any need at all for her post or position in the Cabinet.
The Office of First and Deputy First Minister may see her as an irritant interference, but her presence is desirable, because Stormont cannot yet be fully trusted to exercise power effectively.
Northern Ireland is a deceptive place. Just when the outside world thinks we have solved most of our problems, we have an unerring capacity to invent new ones.
Our obsession with remembering the past — particularly those bits of it which one side or the other doesn’t wish to remember — ensures that sectarian tensions bubble away like hot sulphuric springs just beneath the surface.
Hardly can the new secretary of state have kicked off her stiletto boots last week and settled down to watch the national news than she will have noted the images from Carlisle Circus.
She could be forgiven for wondering why, when the whole of the Western world is pre-occupied with the global economic crisis, our politicians, church and community leaders are locked in debate over a street parade on September 29. That’s Northern Ireland, Ms Villiers, and it’s not likely to change.
Clearly, the new secretary of state is not a minister discarded to the sticks to serve out her time, but a potentially formidable figure seeking to bring a real sense of purpose to her role.
Time will tell, but her priority must be the economy upon which she is well versed to judge and act.
The bloated civil service and public sector cannot be justified for such a small region, but shrinking it without any alternative expansion of private business and industry would be disastrous for the local economy.
Ms Villiers also needs to act as London’s watchdog of the peace process. She must carry through the consultation announced in August by her predecessor, Owen Paterson, aimed at improving the workings of Stormont.
Finding a more efficient and less-costly formula will not be easy, but must be achieved during the tenure of her office. That means far fewer MLAs, no double-jobbing and the establishment of a constructive Opposition.
She will detect awkwardness in the relationship between London and Belfast, which stems from the fact that the Democratic Unionists and certainly Sinn Fein are not enthused by the current Government’s policies.
At every turn of the screw on public spending, they have sought to distance themselves from the Cameron coalition’s economic strategy and to apportion blame to London.
What can she offer to kick-start Northern Ireland’s economy? A reduction in corporation tax? Enterprise zones? What?
Up to this point, procrastination has been the name of the political game at Westminster and Stormont.
Ms Villiers needs to inject more urgency and energy into the decision-making process.