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Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Shaun Woodward MP
Style: The Right Honourable
Appointed by: Gordon Brown
as Prime Minister
First: William Whitelaw
Formation: (24 March 1972)

Northern Ireland

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is the chief minister in the government of the United Kingdom with responsibilities for Northern Ireland, at the head of the Northern Ireland Office. The Secretary is responsible only to the Westminster Parliament and not the Northern Ireland Assembly, even when the latter is sitting.

The role of the Secretary of State is to represent Northern Ireland interests at Westminster. The Secretary and the ministers of the Northern Ireland Office also perform many of the functions that would otherwise be carried out by the Northern Ireland Assembly if it is not in operation. Even when the assembly is sitting, the role of the Secretary of State still exists, although his role and that of his ministers is greatly diminished.

Since the Conservative Party has not won any UK parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland since the establishment of the position, and the Labour Party has not stood in any elections there in this period, no Northern Ireland Office minister has ever represented a Northern Ireland constituency.



The office was created following the suspension, then abolition, of the home rule Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972, following widespread civil strife. The post of Secretary of State in effect fills two roles which existed under the previous Stormont regime; the nominal head of the Northern Ireland executive, the Governor of Northern Ireland (the representative of Queen Elizabeth II) and the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State resides in Hillsborough Castle, the previous residence of the Governor the official government residence in Northern Ireland and exercise their duties through the Northern Ireland Office.

Power was devolved back to Northern Ireland on 1 January 1974 to the Northern Ireland Assembly under Brian Faulkner, but this administration collapsed on 29 May after a widespread strike organised by the loyalist Ulster Workers' Council, who refused to countenance the power-sharing and All-Ireland aspects of the new administration. In 1982 a second Northern Ireland Assembly was established with the hope that it would eventually assume power, but this Assembly was prorogued shortly after the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Under the Belfast Agreement (also called the Good Friday Agreement), the third Northern Ireland Assembly was established. In 1999 the new coalition government was established, consisting of a First Minister and deputy First Minister and an inter-party cabinet. This removed many of the duties of the Secretary of State and his Northern Ireland Office colleagues and devolved them to locally-elected politicians.

The devolved administration was suspended several times because the Ulster Unionists were uncomfortable being in government with Sinn Féin when the Provisional Irish Republican Army had failed to decommission its arms fully. On each of these occasions, the responsibilities of the ministers in the Executive then returned to the Secretary of State and his ministers. During these periods, in addition to administration of the region, the Secretary was also heavily involved in the negotiations with all parties to restore devolved Government.

Most parties in Northern Ireland agree that decisions are better made by politicians who have to answer to the local electorate rather than so-called fly-away ministers who have always represented constituencies in Great Britain.

Power was again devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2007 and many of the administrative responsibilities of the Secretary of State are again exercised by the local Northern Ireland Executive. The secretary retains responsibility for Policing and Justice.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Name Portrait Entered office Left office Political party Prime Minister
William Whitelaw 24 March 1972 2 December 1973 Conservative Edward Heath
Francis Pym Zconcam61.jpg 2 December 1973 4 March 1974 Conservative
Merlyn Rees 5 March 1974 10 September 1976 Labour Harold Wilson
Roy Mason 10 September 1976 4 May 1979 Labour James Callaghan
Humphrey Atkins 5 May 1979 14 September 1981 Conservative Margaret Thatcher
James Prior 14 September 1981 11 September 1984 Conservative
Douglas Hurd Douglas Hurd, November 2007.jpg 11 September 1984 3 September 1985 Conservative
Tom King 3 September 1985 24 July 1989 Conservative
Peter Brooke 24 July 1989 10 April 1992 Conservative
John Major
Sir Patrick Mayhew 10 April 1992 2 May 1997 Conservative
Mo Mowlam Mo mowlem informal image.jpg 3 May 1997 11 October 1999 Labour Tony Blair
Peter Mandelson 11 October 1999 24 January 2001* Labour
John Reid John Reid on his last day as Home Secretary, June 2007.jpg 25 January 2001 24 October 2002 Labour
Paul Murphy 24 October 2002 6 May 2005 Labour
Peter Hain Peter Hain.png 6 May 2005 27 June 2007 Labour
Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward, June 2009 cropped.jpg 28 June 2007 incumbent Labour Gordon Brown

* resigned office


See also



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