Northern Secretary still has role to play, says Paterson

Thu, May 17, 2012, 01:00

THE STORMONT Assembly and powersharing Executive may be well established but there are still important issues to be dealt with by the Northern Secretary, according to the current holder of the position, Owen Paterson MP.

On a visit to Dublin this week for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, Mr Paterson said his role was “to work with local devolved Ministers ensuring that the settlement is stable and delivers to the people of Northern Ireland”.

A primary duty, as set out in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, is “to represent Northern Ireland interests in the United Kingdom cabinet”.

“Just as an example, last week I had a list of six cabinet ministers that I wanted to tackle on a number of issues where their responsibilities overlapped on Northern Ireland. I had to make very clear that they understood certain sensitivities and requirements to make their proposals acceptable to people in Northern Ireland.”

Of the mood of the British cabinet in relation to Northern Ireland, he said: “Like most people, everyone is delighted that Northern Ireland is in a better position than it has been in for decades, that the institutions are stable.

“But cabinet colleagues do need reminding about the sensitivities and some of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland on a regular basis.” It was also not realised how much British legislation affected Northern Ireland, he said, including, for example, more than two-thirds of the Bills mentioned in the recent queen’s speech.

“Those are all UK Bills and only Northern Ireland MPs could influence that legislation, so again, you need someone at cabinet level who can argue the case for Northern Ireland and, if absolutely necessary, go to the top and say: ‘This particular measure needs adapting to suit Northern Ireland’.”

Mr Paterson said he remained keen to cut corporation tax in Northern Ireland to the same 12.5 per cent rate as the Republic. The general UK rate is due to be cut to 22 per cent by 2014. A ministerial working group is studying the cost of reducing the tax and how the new rate would be administered.

On the continuing controversy over the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, shot dead by loyalists who were in collusion with British security forces, the Secretary of State said: “We came to the conclusion that in order to deliver our promise to Mrs Finucane to get to the truth, we didn’t need to go to the steps of setting up a public inquiry because so much of the work had been done.

“What we could do, which was a very radical move, was to apologise in person to Mrs Finucane and family and the prime minister did that. That was a huge gesture. The family came to Downing Street and he apologised and announced that what we want to do is get the truth as rapidly as possible.

“We have appointed an immensely distinguished international lawyer, Desmond da Silva, to review all the papers and to deliver a report to us in December.”

Mr Paterson added: “Sadly, the family didn’t accept the review and there is a judicial review process going on. I’m very sorry the family didn’t accept it. I think what we have done was a really bold and brave gesture . . . which I repeated in the Commons next day and I hoped it would bring satisfaction to the family.”

He also defended the British government refusal to release original intelligence documents for the purposes of inquiring into the May 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians. “We have made available a synopsis of the material which is relevant but I’m afraid the inquiries that we’ve had have confirmed my scepticism of the value of public inquiries.”