Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

Coaker proves he is ready to step out of the shadows

Vernon Coaker MP meets relatives of the 11 people shot dead in Ballymurphy in 1971
Vernon Coaker MP meets relatives of the 11 people shot dead in Ballymurphy in 1971

Vernon Coaker, a 59-year-old former history teacher from Nottingham, spent much of last week visiting Northern Ireland. Coaker is an avid user of Twitter, so each step of his journey was duly recorded.

"Got last bit of daylight driving through the Glenshane Pass," he told his 1,845 followers on Thursday. "Beautiful! In Ballymena tonight."

He posted photos of himself eating "a lovely breakfast in Bistro Este in east Belfast" and described his visit to Londonderry in fewer than 140 characters: "Had a tour of the Walls on a lovely sunny afternoon in the Maiden City."

But Coaker is not just one of an increasing number of English travellers on the cusp of 60 taking advantage of a mini-break in the province; he is also the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

His Twitter fans will know that, during his trip, he met Ballymurphy families in west Belfast and traders in the east of the city affected by recent violence.

He supported the Backin' Belfast campaign, met church leaders, visited businesses, apprentices and mental health services and dropped in on the University of Ulster's Magee campus. Not to mention a DUP dinner with Lord Bannside, Baroness Paisley and Ian Jnr.

It is fair to say that he takes his job seriously. This is a man who has toured Lisburn with Jeffrey Donaldson and attended the Alliance Party conference.

It is inevitable that, with devolution, the big beasts at Westminster are not as well-known in Northern Ireland as they once were. "I have not been to every part of Northern Ireland and not met everybody and many people in Northern Ireland would say 'Vernon Who?,'" he chuckles when we discuss his latest trip.

His message is that London – and Westminster – still matter: "Economic policies set by the Treasury affect Northern Ireland and we need to do more to reflect that in the debates that we have. For example, the welfare changes impact on the whole of the UK, not just in London, where it is passed."

While Coaker pledges co-operation with the coalition Government on security matters, he is willing to argue about economic and social welfare issues. "The macroeconomic strategy they are pursuing causes problems for Northern Ireland," he says.

His desire to get to know the province, not just its problems, has been noted at Westminster.

"He has a shrewd and insightful grasp of the very difficult nuances of Northern Ireland politics," one Tory MP told me.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers may want to follow his lead.

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