Britain’s man in Ireland: Shaun Woodward
Shaun Woodward, 52, is a former journalist, and it shows. He once worked for the BBC, a long way from his role nowadays as British secretary for Northern Ireland, but he knows how to spin a story, tell a yarn and keep a conversation moving.
In a previous life he was also director of communications for the Conservative Party before he switched to Labor. That communication skill comes in handy in his current job.
In other words, he is in many ways a perfect fit for Northern Ireland these days, where the power-sharing government has taken over much of the executive power, and Woodward is needed more as a facilitator than policy maker.
It is a job he is clearly good at. Being Britain’s man in Northern Ireland is usually as broadly popular as a gigolo in a nunnery, but Woodard earns respect from both sides for his doggedness and get along manner.
These are tough times as the final pieces of the jigsaw try and fit together in Northern Ireland. Woodward has won praise for his evenhanded efforts to make it all work.
He recently wrested $2 billion in extra funding from the British Exchequer at a time of great cutbacks, to make the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland happen.
When you compare his down-to-earth style with the bombast of previous Northern Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew, or the sheer arrogance of Peter Mandelson, he is certainly a refreshing change.
Woodward says he models himself on Mo Mowlam, the late Northern Ireland secretary who was beloved in Irish America.
He is making a big effort with Irish America also. Over breakfast in Manhattan last week he explained that he felt the Irish American aspect was a critical part of the solution, especially in the economic sphere.
Woodward understands quite well that it takes a dedicated push rather than just an occasional visit to bring industry from America back to the North. Hence his frequent visits here, where he liaises with U.S. economic envoy Declan Kelly and leading Irish American businessmen.
He is a former Conservative Party MP who switched to Labor when his former party under William Hague became a right wing shell. Ironically, after he gave up his seat to run elsewhere for Labor, the beneficiary was none other than David Cameron, now leader of the Tory Party and favorite to be next prime minister, though a new poll last week showed the gap between Labor and Tories closing dramatically.
Woodward gives credit where credit is due to former Prime Minister John Major for his efforts on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland. He says from day one Major made it clear that he wanted to deal with the North, something very few prime ministers ever did.
Woodward concedes that Major was wrong on the Gerry Adams visa for the U.S. in 1994. He says the Clinton decision that made the Major government furious at the time was undoubtedly the right one.
He is a huge fan of Major’s successor Tony Blair, who felt the hand of history descending when it came to Northern Ireland and arguably made it his most famous political triumph.