The Northern Ireland Secretary of State league

As part of today’s cabinet reshuffle, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed Julian Smith from his post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after 204 days in the role.

Julian Smith has proved a popular Secretary of State with people from all areas of the community. His efforts were crucial in getting power-sharing re-established at Stormont following the collapse of the Executive in 2017. Former Conservative party chair Brandon Lewis has since been announced as his successor.

It is too soon to assess how Brandon Lewis will get on as Secretary of State. However, I thought it might be interesting to review his 21 predecessors in the role. This is always going to be an impossibly subjective task. What follows is my completely unscientific league table of Secretaries of State, from worst to best. Please don’t get mad.

21) Theresa Villiers (Conservative: 2012-16) – 0.0 out of 10

The dubious honour of being the least competent Northern Ireland Secretary of State was always going to be a hotly contested one. Reasonable arguments could be made about many on this list. However, the incessant stream of nonsense and hand-waving dismissals of the impact a hard Brexit would have on Northern Ireland whilst in post as Northern Ireland Secretary marks Theresa Villiers as the worst of all.

20) Karen Bradley (Conservative: 2018-19) – 0.1

Karen Bradley is a popular choice for worst Northern Ireland Secretary. Her tenure certainly saw no shortage of comedy moments, including this Hall of Fame contender.

I gave Karen Bradley a bonus tenth of a mark on the grounds that, being completely out of her depth, she didn’t quite have the same level of malevolence as her predecessor-but-one. It’s as if Mr Bean had been sent instead of Paddy Ashdown to take up the post of High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002. If you’ve ever had a dream where you’ve had to land an Airbus A380 in a storm, teach a class in quantum mechanics, or dissect an elephant on stage, then you will have an insight into how Karen Bradley’s terrifying 18 month tenure as Northern Ireland Secretary must have felt like.

19) Roy Mason (Labour: 1976-79) – 1.0

This is meant to be a not particularly serious post, but much of what happened in Northern Ireland over the last 50 years doesn’t lend itself well to light heartedness. Under Roy Mason’s watch, Amnesty International condemned torture, including waterboarding, by the RUC at their holding centre at Castlereagh. He also spent a substantial amount of public funds for the time (£54m) in what would prove to be the disastrous investment by John DeLorean.

As Lord Fitt would later remark, “that wee fu**er… put things for us back ten years. Fifteen.” It is hard to disagree.

18) Merlyn Rees (Labour: 1974-76) – 1.5

The obituary in the Irish Times of Merlyn Rees summed up Merlyn Rees: “[he] may have been the perfect example of the British politician who imagines he brings superior understanding to Northern Ireland but makes things worse, not better.”

He is perhaps best known for his dithering response to the loyalist workers strike of 1974, and for lifting the prescription against the UVF in 1974 before the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. His “constructive ambiguity” about the prospect of a British military withdrawal encouraged both republican and loyalist paramilitaries to escalate their violence.

Indecisive, incompetent, and inept, Rees is a particularly striking example of a useless Secretary of State.

17) James Brokenshire (Conservative: 2016-18) – 2.0

In office when the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed, Brokenshire was one of a series of bungling mediocrities to hold the Northern Ireland Secretary role in the 2010s. His criticism of the PPS regarding cases involving former soldiers, and his failure to properly deal with donor secrecy drew much criticism.

16) Tom King (Conservative: 1985-89) – 3.0

Described by those close to him as “not bright”, King was shipped off to Belfast in the twilight of his political career. He was in post when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, but was personally said to be opposed to it.

15) Owen Paterson (Conservative: 2010-12) – 4.0

Owen Paterson had an unmemorable stint as Northern Ireland Secretary for two years from 2010 to 2012. We are now getting into the realm of mediocre rather than actively awful.

14) Humphrey Atkins (Conservative: 1979-81) – 4.5

Humphrey Atkins was Northern Ireland Secretary for two years from 1979. His instincts towards political compromise were squashed by the hard line taken by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

13) Jim Prior (Conservative: 1981-84) – 4.5

Prior was another 80s-era Secretary of State whose attempts at a move towards a resolution of the conflict were stymied by his boss.

12) Francis Pym (Conservative: 1973-74) – 4.8

Pym only held the job for a few weeks in the winter of 1973/74, but his short tenure did lead him to conclude that the power-sharing approach espoused by predecessor Willie Whitelaw might work.

11) Shaun Woodward (Labour: 2007-10) – 5.1

Shaun Woodward had the Northern Ireland gig for three years during a relatively quiet period following the St Andrew’s Agreement. His stint was distinctly unmemorable.

10) Paul Murphy (Labour: 2002-05) – 5.2

Paul Murphy had the Northern Ireland job for three years from 2002, and turned in a perfectly acceptable performance.

9) Douglas Hurd (Conservative: 1984-85) – 5.3

I’m not going to lie, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Douglas Hurd was Northern Ireland Secretary. It’s like the urban legend that Marilyn Manson used to be in The Wonder Years, except it’s actually true. In any case, Hurd’s most memorable act as Secretary of State seems to be that he got hammered in Dublin when he met his Irish ministerial counterparts, and had to be walked around a park to help him shift his hangover. This is not unrelateable.

8) Peter Brooke (Conservative: 1989-92) – 5.9

Peter Brooke is largely credited with bringing Sinn Féin to the negotiating table, declaring that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland and would accept unification if the people wished it.

7) Peter Mandelson (Labour: 1999-2001) – 6.0

Peter Mandelson’s appointment in 1999 would have caused Northern Ireland Twitter to collapse under the weight of its own gifs had it existed at the time. That he referred to his job as “Secretary of State for Ireland” in his very first speech notwithstanding, Mandelson actually did do a pretty decent job. He oversaw the creation of the Assembly and the Executive, as well as reform of the police service.

6) Peter Hain (Labour: 2005-07) – 6.1

Peter Hain was in post during the St Andrew’s Agreement, and is credited with negotiating the settlement which saw both the DUP and Sinn Féin join the Northern Ireland Executive in 2007.

5) John Reid (Labour: 2001-02) – 6.5

Reid held the job for nearly two years after Mandelson’s resignation. He is known for confronting both republican and loyalist paramilitaries during disturbances in East Belfast, for paving the way towards decommissioning of IRA weapons, and overseeing the creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

4) Julian Smith (Conservative: 2019-20) – 7.0

By some distance the most effective and locally popular Secretary of State for over a decade, Julian Smith was instrumental in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2020. He is also known for his work with victims of the Troubles and victims of historical institutional abuse.

The precise reasons for his dismissal remain opaque, but his removal as Secretary of State caused dismay across the political spectrum, and the expectations on his successor will be immense.

3) William Whitelaw (Conservative: 1972-73) – 7.1

Whitelaw was the first Northern Ireland Secretary of State following the imposition of direct rule in 1972. His efforts to resolve the conflict through the creation of a power-sharing executive with the Sunningdale Agreement would ultimately prove futile, he set the template for how the conflict would eventually be resolved decades later.

2) Sir Patrick Mayhew (Conservative: 1992-97) – 7.2

Mayhew’s tenure as Northern Ireland secretary helped pave the way towards the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 happened under his watch, and his patient approach towards talks was instrumental in the breakthrough that followed under his successor.

1) Mo Mowlam (Labour: 1997-99) – 10.0

Mo Mowlam is indisputably the best Secretary of State.

Mowlam personified the character traits that people in Northern Ireland value the most highly. She was kind, empathetic, caring, hard as nails, and utterly fearless. That the Good Friday Agreement was ever signed in the first place was in no small part due to the force of her personality, and she will forever be remembered as one of the giants of Irish politics.

When Mowlam was appointed Secretary of State in 1997, my teenage self’s pre-occupation, other than trying to summon the courage to talk to the girl I sat across from in double award science, would have been to “get out of this godforsaken hellhole at the first opportunity”.

But now, occasionally, as me and the girl from double award science watch our children play together in the Mo Mowlam Play Park at Stormont, I’m struck by the fact that sometimes things do actually get better.

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