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Owen Paterson

Position: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Last Updated: Friday, June 3rd, 2011

One of the most Right-wing members of David Cameron’s Cabinet is one of the least visible, at least for most people living in England, Scotland and Wales.

That is because I am referring to Owen Paterson, who has been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland since the formation of the Coalition government, having held that portfolio in David Cameron’s shadow cabinet between 2007 and 2010.

In government today, the holder of the Northern Ireland job has increasingly little power with the devolved Executive and Assembly having been permanently functioning for some years now – especially since justice and policing powers were restored to a minister at Stormont in April 2010 for the first time since 1972 (although the Secretary of State does still enjoy the run of Hillsborough Castle).

However, with the threat from dissident Republicans never far away and issues from the decades of the Troubles still casting shadows over Northern Ireland, Paterson plays a vital political and diplomatic role as a link for the province directly to Whitehall, and by all accounts he has performed his duties with aplomb during his first year in post.

The way that he and David Cameron handled the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in June 2010 won particular plaudits, whilst more recently he has had to deal with the report into the murder of lawyer Rosemary Nelson. He has also been a strong advocate of a cut in the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland.

Paterson was born in 1956 in Whitchurch, Shropshire, which lies within the boundaries of the constituency he now represents in Parliament. 

Educated at Radley College, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and the National Leathersellers College, in 1979 he joined his family’s business, the British Leather Company, and remained there full-time until his election as MP for North Shropshire in 1997, latterly as Managing Director.

He joined the Conservative Party in 1980 and was an activist in the party in the Shropshire area throughout his pre-parliamentary career. 

He acted as an aide to Oswestry MP John Biffen during the 1987 general election and in 1992 contested Wrexham, across the border in North Wales.

Upon Biffen’s retirement, Paterson was selected to contest the renamed constituency of North Shropshire himself, entering Parliament in 1997 and retaining the seat with ever increasing majorities at successive general elections.

After a brief stint in the Whips’ Office under William Hague, Paterson served as PPS to his friend and political fellow traveller, Iain Duncan Smith, throughout the latter’s tenure as Opposition leader.

Under Michael Howard he was the party’s rural affairs and fisheries spokesman, whilst he spent the first eighteen months of David Cameron’s leadership as a transport spokesman before getting the Northern Ireland job – which he took so seriously that he was regularly spending more days a week in the province than Shaun Woodward, the Labour Secretary of State he was shadowing.

He was a particular champion of the electoral pact between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists in advance of the 2010 election, although no candidate ended up being elected under the joint banner since the protracted negotiations over the deal resulted in most candidates being selected at the eleventh hour.

Euroscepticism has been a common thread throughout Paterson’s political career: a Vice President of the now defunct Conservatives Against a Federal Europe in the late 1990s, when working alongside Duncan Smith he was charged with formulating a plan to extract Tory MEPs from the federalist EPP group in Brussels, whilst he ensured the party had a robust position in favour of withdrawal from the Commons Fisheries Policy when he was on the Defra team.

At leadership elections, Paterson has consistently plumped for Right- wing tickets: Redwood in 1997; Duncan Smith in 2001; and Fox then Davis in 2005. A Thatcherite, free market, low tax Conservative, he is a member of the key Right-of-centre parliamentary factions  – the 92 Group and the No Turning Back Group – and his social conservatism is belied by his links to the Cornerstone group of traditionalist-minded Tory MPs.

He is married (and has three children with) Rose, the daughter of the 4th Viscount Ridley and niece of one-time Cabinet Minister Nicholas Ridley – whom he spoke of approvingly in his maiden speech.

Jonathan Isaby

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