Belfast Telegraph

Paterson's high-wire act in ensuring his survival

By Tom Moseley

For two years, Peter Hain, who stepped down from the Shadow Cabinet yesterday, had a stint as Secretary of State for both Northern Ireland and Wales.

For some, this demonstrated that savings could be made from the representation of devolved nations at Westminster.

Martin McGuinness went further recently, arguing that all remaining powers should be transferred to Stormont, abolishing the Northern Ireland Office and the role of Secretary of State.

The deputy First Minister's comments might have been in Owen Paterson's mind last week, when the Queen unveiled the Government's legislative programme for the next year.

There was, as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Vernon Coaker pointed out, no mention of Northern Ireland. But Mr Paterson was keen to stress that this was not a measure of his clout (or lack of it) around the Cabinet table.

After the Queen's Speech, he told me he had written down the names of six ministers he wanted to collar at a recent Cabinet meeting, claiming that the setting up of a new National Crime Agency, which will extend to Northern Ireland, was "an absolute classic" example of his role's importance.

He had lobbied Home Secretary Theresa May and Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford on the issue, he said - suggesting that his influence should not be judged on the amount of soundbites produced.

It'll be years before the minutes of those Cabinet meetings are published, so we'll have to take his word for it. Meanwhile, the debate about the level of representation needed for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will simmer on.

Last year, a Commons committee recommended a merger, calling for "a serious look at the Whitehall departments of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland".

This would save two Cabinet posts and one junior minister, the MPs said, although the Government dismissed their proposal.

Supporters of the link with Westminster say it would not be in Northern Ireland's interests to water down its presence here.

There are plenty of meaty issues decided from London and the bits of the Queen's Speech that did not apply to Northern Ireland were in the minority. And it is, of course, good that there is no longer need for Northern Ireland-specific measures in many instances.

Awkwardly, for Mr Paterson, at the same time as highlighting his importance within the Government, he also has to avoid rows on matters that are Stormont's responsibility, so it's a tricky balancing-act. In any case, there's no sign that the Government is planning any changes to the current set-up. But it is a debate we'll hear again.

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