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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 17:05 GMT
John Reid: A tough brief for a tough guy?
Dr John Reid
John Reid: taking up the reins at Stormont
By BBC NI political correspondent, Martina Purdy

As Northern Ireland's 13th secretary of state, John Reid will be hoping the number is not a bad omen.

Secretaries of state are notorious for slipping on the political banana skin shortly after taking up office.

The Northern Ireland portfolio is widely acknowledged as the toughest job in cabinet and there has been no good time to arrive in Belfast.

Most ministers have arrived in the midst of bloody conflict. Even those who have not, for instance, Mo Mowlam, have had to deal with the complexities of a still emerging peace process.

Political Rubik cube

John Reid is arriving in the midst of complicated negotiations aimed at ending the political deadlock.

The issues are well documented - policing, decommissioning, demilitarisation, and the Ulster Unionist ban on Sinn Fein ministers attending North-South Ministerial Council meetings.

The interlocking nature of these issues form a political Rubik cube which the best political minds have yet to solve.

In Dr Reid's favour, is that he is surrounded by British officials who have worked for years on the peace process with their Irish counterparts.

Plus there is the involvement of the prime minister himself which gives Dr Reid a certain breathing space while he studies his brief.

Mr Blair has even been described as his own secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

But any politician worth his or her salt will not want to sit on the sidelines too long. Soon John Reid will attempt to play his own part in the government's delicate balancing act.

The difficulties should not be underestimated.

Meeting nationalist demands on policing and the dismantling of army bases could unsettle David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party to the point where it withdraws from government or demands suspension.

Time is short. Most of the players agree there is less than a month to find a resolution before unionist party politics and electoral considerations begin to burden the talks.

Kevin McNamara
Kevin McNamara: Former shadow minister

Those who know the 53-year-old Scot believe he has the qualities necessary to get the job done.

Kevin McNamara, the Labour MP and former shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, said he well understands political nuances.

He said: "He will neither seek to ingratiate himself with either side nor to demean either side."

Much attention has focussed on the fact Dr Reid is the first Catholic Northern Ireland Secretary and on his love of Celtic Football Club.

'Securocrat' suspicion unfair

If that is supposed to be a plus for nationalists, there is something for unionists too - his Presbyterian grandparents, and his former role as armed forces minister where he was seen as their strong supporter.

But nationalist suspicion that he may be a Catholic "securocrat" is an unfair allegation according to Mr McNamara.

One member of the Scottish parliament Mike Russell, who is no fan of Dr Reid's attacks on his party's nationalism, described him as a "bruiser" but said his colleague did have the intelligence to overcome potential problems in this regard.

While he seeks to earn the confidence of the parties inside the talks, his support for the Good Friday Agreement will win him no friends in the anti-agreement community.

How he deals with this alienated group will be another challenge for him.

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See also:

24 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Mixed NI views on Mandelson resignation
24 Jan 01 | Scotland
Dr John Reid: Profile
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