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.
Asked what surprised him most about the job, Woodward thinks a moment and says how incredibly the North had come on from the bombed out streets of his previous visit there in the 1980s, to when he took over as secretary of health for Northern Ireland in 2005 and later as full secretary in 2007.
Woodward is good for Northern Ireland because of his close links to Gordon Brown. He is said to be close to Brown because of his knowledge of the Tory mindset from his time in that party.
If Labor were to be re-elected he would undoubtedly aspire to higher office and probably get it. He also accepts no salary from his job as he is married to the heiress to the Sainsbury grocery store fortune.
Woodward firmly believes the dissident IRA movements have no credibility because they have little or no support in Nationalist communities
Despite the current impasse over devolution of policing and justice he remains upbeat despite “sharing the frustration” of being so near to the final steps in the process.
Despite all that Woodward says he has “enormous respect for people who see things through,” and he is talking about Northern Ireland’s leaders. He believes current leaders Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson are two outstanding examples of that.
Time will tell if Woodward is right, but it won’t be for lack of him trying.
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