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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Woodward to administer a shrinking NIO

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Shaun Woodward is the only Labour MP known to employ a butler. It is just as well he has considerable private means, because he will not be paid as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

British government rules state that only 21 members of the cabinet can draw a salary and, as number 22, Woodward has agreed not to do so.

A former TV researcher for his close friend Esther Rantzen, Woodward married the supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury and his main income comes from shares in her family business.

There is growing confidence in Westminster that devolution in Northern Ireland will succeed and his main mission will be to work towards passing control of policing and justice to the Stormont executive by next year.

As ever in Northern Ireland, deadlines agreed by London are likely to slip. The Democratic Unionist party is already suggesting next year is too early to give policing powers to an administration that includes Sinn Féin. It wants more time. It will be up to Woodward to apply as much pressure on the republicans as he can to wind down IRA structures to meet DUP requirements. At the same time he must persuade the unionist party to stop stalling if Sinn Féin produces the goods.

Key DUP figures, including Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, are to be given Privy Council briefings alongside Woodward, providing them with access to the government's intelligence assessments on the IRA. So far they have been reassured. The view has been that its army council will remain in existence only to wind up the organisation's other structures.

If the IRA is dwindling away, so is the Northern Ireland Office. Woodward will preside over the smallest-ever ministerial team – just himself and Paul Goggins, who remains from the pre-Brown era as minister of state with responsibility for security and prisons.

The political message behind the small team and unwaged status is that the job of secretary of state for Northern Ireland will not long remain as a cabinet post. Once the IRA has been run down and the devolution of justice is achieved, the jobs of the secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales could be rolled into one ministry.

Woodward, who was a junior minister at the NIO in 2005, can be expected to hit the ground running in his tightly focused new role. Born into a working-class background in Bristol, he drifted towards the bottom stream in Bristol grammar; both his brothers left school at the age of 15.

He failed the university entrance exams before making a dramatic last-minute rally and – after resits – confounded his detractors by winning an exhibition (a financial award) at Cambridge.

Colleagues say this is typical of his can-do attitude and the dramatic bursts of energy he displays when he gives priority to an objective and sets out to achieve it.

His first political home was the Tory party, where he was a strong supporter of John Major and noted for his ability to bait Labour in the House of Commons. Although he was a Thatcherite on economic issues he was too liberal for the Tories on the lowering of the homosexual age of consent – which he compared to the abolition of slavery – and on Europe.

He crossed the floor to Labour in 1999 and in the bitter recriminations that followed, his sister (who had once been his brother) was "outed" as a transsexual. Much was also made of the fact he had lent his London home to Peter Mandelson.

Woodward arrives in Belfast as Ian Paisley Jr is coming under sustained pressure to apologise or resign as a minister after saying homosexuals disgust him. The pair are unlikely to find time to bicker, however.

Woodward will want movement from the DUP on devolution and Paisley and his colleagues will treat his urgency as an opportunity to lever more funds from Gordon Brown for Northern Ireland.

July 1, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on July 1, 2007.