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Vernon Coaker: 'I've had disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn's policies'

The Big Interview

Published 28/09/2015

Talks process: Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker
Talks process: Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker

Liam Clarke talks to the new Northern Ireland Shadow Secretary of State about his role, his hopes for progress at Stormont and his relationship with the Labour leader.

Q. Theresa Villiers said you would back her on passing welfare reform in Westminster if Stormont can't. Is that correct?

A. We have expressed our concerns about welfare reform but we need that settled in Northern Ireland. We don't want it to come to us as a last resort so let's see if we can get it done in Northern Ireland first.

Q. We don't have long now - things will probably come to a head in October.

A. The Government needs to look at this and see if there are other ways in which the Treasury will ameliorate the impacts of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. There are special circumstances there. There are issues and sometimes if you are in a difficult situation it is important not just to keep restating the same thing. Look at mental health, look at long-term worklessness, look at the impact. There are special things that can be done to help to tackle those problems and move the whole process forward.

There are fresh ideas that can be brought to the process to try and break the deadlock.

Q. You think that the Government won't subsidise our welfare above the level of the rest of the UK but there might be other legacy areas where there would give more money which would ease our budget and improve our ability to deal with welfare?

A. Exactly. That is worth exploring. Flexibility to try and do that. I would be open to that if Labour forms the next Government and I am Secretary of State.

Q. The shadow cabinet seems like it is in a state of mutiny. People are quick to distance themselves from the leader.

A. Jeremy Corbyn won. It would be wrong to pretend he didn't win with a big mandate, he did. At the same time people like myself have had disagreements with Jeremy's policies. I thought it was important that the moderates and those of us from a broad UK perspective should be in there in the shadow cabinet arguing for our points of view.

I was obviously doing defence before and that was difficult but when he offered me the Northern Ireland post I was delighted. It was a privilege to work in Northern Ireland before. I felt it was an important and challenging area of work.

I enjoyed it and I felt the personal relationships I had, the way I managed to work with people might help in some small way with easing the situation. If there are disagreements with Jeremy later we will have to see how that works out.

Recent years have shown a growing appetite for new policies across the UK.

We saw it with Ukip, we see Jeremy's election, there are other examples. It all shows frustration and disillusionment with politics and I felt I had to be involved.

Q. Did you make any conditions for joining the shadow cabinet?

A. When I took the Northern Ireland post I made it quite clear to Jeremy that I won't vote against the renewal of Trident [Britain's nuclear submarine fleet].

In fact I will vote for it, I won't be absent or make excuses as politicians sometimes do.

I also support continued membership of Nato. This is something he may trim his sails on eventually.

There is a constant interaction between where we are, what our policy is, and where Jeremy is.

The clash of ideology could be used to create a new dynamic.

We could possibly all work together on multilateral disarmament. The bottom line is that none of us want nuclear weapons in principle, we are agreed on that.

It is whether to just scrap them unilaterally or as part of a bargaining process to eliminate such weapons across the globe.

Q. So you would renew Trident and then put it on the table in negotiations?

A. I wouldn't unilaterally scrap it. I will vote for the renewal of Trident. President Obama has talked about negotiating a "global zero" in nuclear weapons and we need to look at that.

Q. What is your emphasis in Northern Ireland?

A. I was also clear on Northern Ireland that it was about the bipartisan approach, the principle of consent, building on the agreement and so on. I am going to go with the policies I was elected on, they have not changed.

People in Northern Ireland are always saying 'things are so much better than they were'. That isn't to say that there are not difficult issues to be resolved but I always look with amazement at what political leaders and the communities in Northern Ireland have achieved with the result of the British and Irish governments, it is phenomenal.

That doesn't mean it's easy on issues of flags and identities and culture and parades, and welfare reform and dealing with the legacy of the past. Of course it isn't easy, it is really difficult especially for those who have lost relatives and suffered.

I hope that your political leadership can find a way through the present difficulties and I personally think they will, however choppy the waters are on the way.

Q. Will you be pursuing the Heenan Anderson report commissioned by your predecessor Ivan Lewis? [A recent report by Professor Deirdre Heenan and Colin Anderson on deprivation here.]

A. I will read that. I look forward to talking to the authors and seeing how we can move that forward. Inequality needs to be tackled.

I see academic research as useful. It allows people to stand back from the situation and see new things or old things in a new way.

Q. Would you favour a same-sex marriage referendum here or would you support some other way of changing the law?

A. I voted for same-sex marriage in Westminster and I support it but in order to take that forward you need to work with the people of Northern Ireland. With that in mind I want to see how best the issue can be taken forward.

Q. An unnamed general recently told the Sunday Times there could be a coup if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. Could that happen?

A. I don't think that is a comment a general should be making either on or off the record. If there is a democratically elected Government then it is a not a matter for anyone to suggest it should be overthrown. The source of this remark is something that needs to be looked at. It was a huge surprise to read it.

Q. Could Jeremy corbyn have trouble with the Army?

A. I don't think in the sense of a coup. Not at all. Yet is important for any Government to have good relationships with the armed forces and that is why it is important for people like me to be involved. My good relations with the armed forces was one of the reasons I went into the shadow cabinet. I respect the armed forces and know what they did around the world but this is a democracy and in a democracy the democratically-elected Government sets the policies. The armed forces have to work according to those democratically determined policies.

Q. He has come round on a few issues like being willing to sing the national anthem. Are these just teething troubles?

A. He moved from being a backbench MP to being the leader of a major political party and that brings with it certain responsibilities and changes to the way he is. He is now operating totally in the public gaze. He now operates in a way where people will judge him on what he does as well as what he says and so therefore it is important he acts accordingly. I am sure some of it is just the transition.

I hope he will learn from the things that have happened and move on.

Q. As you know, a growing number of people want the Labour Party to contest elections in Northern Ireland. I think they had about 1,500 members and registered supporters at the last count. Will they get standing?

A. When I was in Northern Ireland before, I got the NEC of the party to agree a review in every parliament of the status of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. It has to review whether the party can stand or not.

As far as I am concerned we are in a new parliament and that needs to happen quickly. I think that is something that is there and it needs discussing. There is now a process to be laid down which needs to happen.

Q. I got the report of that meeting in 2013. Before it Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, had told both the Belfast Telegraph and the BBC that he didn't mind Labour standing in STV elections but not at Westminster against the SDLP. The NEC report recorded that the SDLP had said the opposite in private, opposing Labour standing at all in case it might help Sinn Fein.

A. That is the whole reason the NEC set up a process involving the SDLP, the Irish Labour Party and others. It is so that we can be clear about what the view of everyone is an where we go from here.

It is important that those meetings take place.

This is a process which is being set up by the NEC and someone will be appointed to run it.

Q. Could the SDLP just veto it?

A. All of that will be a matter for discussion, if you can move forward, how you can move forward, what can be done.

There is a willingness to discuss it.

Q. What is the relationship with the SDLP? They often vote Labour at Westminster but not always and they don't take the whip. Is it because of the socialist group in Europe?

A. Yes that is right. We, the SDLP and Irish Labour are all affiliated to the Party of European Socialists. Generally we have a good relationship with the SDLP. I do myself but I have got a good relationship with all the parties in Northern Ireland and I want to continue with that.

Q. The Irish Labour Party is getting involved and passed a motion favouring a shared region in which you would jointly field candidates. Would that sort of common effort help build cross-community support?

A. Of course. The Irish Labour Party were part of the process the last time and will be part of any process this time. We have a broad-based approach. There is a meeting of the Labour Party Northern Ireland Forum at the conference. It will involve ourselves, the Northern Ireland Constituency Party, the Co-operative party, the Irish Labour Party and the SDLP. There will be other meetings involving Northern Ireland and I hope to attend them all.

Q. What were you doing here last week?

A. I've only recently been reappointed as Shadow Secretary of State so on Wednesday and Thursday I concentrated on renewing the close relationships which I have built up when I was last here [October 2011-October 2013].

I went to Stormont to meet Peter Robinson and with Martin McGuinness later and it is good of them to find the time to meet me. I am meeting the Chief Constable, Mike Nesbitt, David Ford and Alasdair McDonnell.

I will be supporting the process in any way I can. It is an important moment so hopefully political leaders in Northern Ireland will be able to grasp that hope and make it a reality.

Q. If we cannot agree welfare reform locally would you support the Tories in voting it through in Westminster?

A. It is a complete and utter last resort to go to Westminster so I am asking the Government to do all they can to resolve this by agreement.

They need to look at what they might do on some of the other issues around welfare.

Q. Do you think Jeremy Corbyn will lead the Labour Party into the next election?

A. I hope he is successful and I hope he will but it is about getting a Labour Government and winning next time.

So Jeremy will need to be able to do that, so we will see how it goes.

Q. His followers say he has reconnected with the people. Can people like Michael Dugher and you help him reconnect with the MPs who generally didn't vote for him?

A. The issue for all of us is the way in which politics has changed. If we don't grasp that we will find it difficult to recover quickly from our electoral defeat. In the end it is not only about speaking to ourselves - it is about speaking to the country.

Q. What part do you think you can play in the ongoing efforts to rescue Stormont?

A. In the end I don't have the influence of people in office like the Secretary of State, Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness. You just hope that in your own way you can help.

I know that the unionists were incandescent with John McDonnell's appointment as Chancellor. Me being appointed in Northern Ireland didn't solve the problem but it does help avoid a crisis of confidence in Labour's intentions. That is the last thing the talks need.

Difficulty with Labour and anger with Labour is one thing but a crisis of confidence in Labour would have been another unhelpful element. Hopefully I have helped avoid that.

Q. Some say John McDonnell's comments about IRA guns and bullets achieving peace were made to impress a circle of activists and he didn't foresee how it would go down when the whole world heard it [John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had said some years back that we should be honouring IRA fighters whose bombs and bullets brought Britain to the negotiating table].

A. Exactly. He was right to apologise. In the end you just can't have any truck or association with political violence. It was head-in-your-hands stuff.

When I said this in the House of Commons he was sitting a couple of seats away from me and he didn't show any disapproval. One person told me he nodded his head. While I am in this job we are focused on the principle of consent in Northern Ireland and we can all agree on that.

Q. Have you got anything you want to add?

A. I want to stress how important the bipartisan approach and the principle of consent are in all this. I always look at what is happening in Northern Ireland and I just find it remarkable how much progress people have made.

I recently reread the Stormont House Agreement and if that document could be implemented it would be such a step forward. It is such an amazingly radical document in terms of what it is trying to resolve. Most of the issues in Northern Ireland that are still causing problems and grief and heartache were addressed. It really was a determined effort by all of those who were involved to say 'right, these are still outstanding issues from the troubled period we are emerging from. How do we deal with these? How do we do something about them?"

I sometimes wonder people in Westminster fully realise the enormity of what was achieved through that Stormont House Agreement and what the prize of success would be.

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