Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Saturday, 2 July 2005 10:13 UK

The busy life of an NIO minister

Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

If all goes according to plan, the government hopes they will be made redundant. But for now the direct rule ministers remain in charge.

Shaun Woodward
Shaun Woodward heads three ministerial departments

Peter Hain told trade unionists last month that his ministers will not duck tough decisions, but will govern with purpose and resolve. So how is the new Stormont team performing?

Last week, I spent a day with one of the new team, Shaun Woodward, to see how he juggles the demands of three different government departments.

Mr Woodward is minister for health, security and regional development. That kind of division of labour is unimaginable elsewhere in Whitehall, but typical at the Northern Ireland Office.

Shaun Woodward, though, is not exactly a typical minister.

The St Helen's MP is a former Tory director of communications, who defected to Labour. As everyone in the Westminster village knows, he is not short of a bob or two.

A millionaire married to the supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury, he does not like people dwelling on his family wealth, putting the regular stories about his wealth and his butler down to jealousy.

Mr Woodward insists he has got where he is today through education and hard work. He might not need the cash, but this is his first ministerial job and he comes over as a politician with a point to prove.

Long hours

Certainly if Tuesday 28 June was anything to go by, the minister is putting in long hours.

We start off at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast, where Mr Woodward is meeting senior officials to discuss the government's alcohol and drugs strategy. He is also preparing to deliver a speech setting out his personal vision for the health service.

Up until the last minute the minister and his officials are honing the text down adjusting references to the Health Improvement Regulation Authority.

"How on earth did we come up with that name?" the minister wonders aloud.

The speech is delivered with confidence in a journalistic style. It clearly draws on the minister's past as an editor of the That's Life programme.

Mr Woodward sets out his views on a smoking ban in public places, making references to his own decision to quit smoking. He talks about cutting waiting lists and preventing suicide. Not everyone is pleased.

Health lobbyists accuse the minister of playing for time by not deciding between a total or a partial smoking ban. They point out that 91% backed a total ban in the government's recent consultation.

The minister outlined his views on a smoking ban
The minister outlined his views on a smoking ban

The families of some suicide victims in west Belfast do not like the minister's comments linking suicide with paramilitary attacks on young people.

As the reaction begins to come in, the minister is already on the road. In transit he takes off his health minister hat and puts on his regional development one.

We head towards Dromore - the pronunciation of which presents the minister with a few challenges. We are here to open a new stretch of road. The civil servants call it a grade separated junction, the rest of us would call it an underpass.

Running under the main Belfast to Dublin road it should save lives at what has been a dangerous crossing. Whilst we drive the minister's private secretary is on the phone telling officials in London that Mr Woodward has approved the draft of a new Criminal Justice Order.

We are here to open a new stretch of road. The civil servants call it a grade separated junction. The rest of us would call it an underpass.

The local MP Jeffrey Donaldson is among the welcoming party for the minister at Dromore. Would he not prefer, I ask, to be the man wielding the scissors and cutting the tape?

Mr Donaldson says local ministers should be in charge and says it is crazy for one politician to have to leap between so many different departmental responsibilities.

The DUP MP points out that he has the local knowledge someone like Mr Woodward lacks, but quickly adds that he is not putting himself forward for the minister's job.

As Shaun Woodward saunters back towards his car, his regional development department officials want to discuss the latest proposals for wheel clamping.

En route to Stormont Castle, the minister starts to focus on security with back to back meetings with the Ulster Unionists and the DUP due in the afternoon.

In between times he seems determined to push ahead with the introduction of water charges, linking the unsatisfactory state of public services in Northern Ireland with what he sees as the low local tax burden.

Airport

There is no clocking off time. The security meetings at the castle last until teatime and then the minister heads for the airport.

At 2200 BST on Tuesday Mr Woodward is voting on ID cards at Westminster.

At 2300 BST he is still taking calls from officials about the 12 July Orange Order parade in Londonderry.

So is this ministerial team more proactive than Paul Murphy's? Mr Woodward diplomatically pays tribute to the "very good job" done by his predecessors.

But he adds that "there are decisions that have to be made, whether they are about water charges, improving waiting lists or building new roads."

"Peter Hain and I don't intend to rest up on getting on with the business of governing for people here in Northern Ireland. What we'd like to see is power sharing back soon, but until that happens we've got a job to do and we shall make decisions based on what's right for the people here."

Over the next few months, of course, the people will be the judge of that.



SEE ALSO
Minister 'should ban NI smoking'
31 May 05 |  Northern Ireland
Minister, union discuss attacks
23 May 05 |  Northern Ireland
Shaun Woodward
16 Oct 02 |  Politics

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