Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland

James Brokenshire

since 14 July 2016
Northern Ireland Office
Style The Right Honourable
(Formal prefix)
Northern Ireland Secretary
Residence Hillsborough Castle
Appointer Elizabeth II

Lord Lieutenant of Ireland

Governor of Northern Ireland
Inaugural holder William Whitelaw
Formation 24 March 1972
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Northern Ireland
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Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, informally known as the Northern Ireland Secretary, is the principal secretary of state in Her Majesty's Government with responsibilities for Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State is a Minister of the Crown who is accountable to the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is the chief minister in the Northern Ireland Office. As with other ministers, the position is appointed by the British monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The position is normally described simply as 'the Secretary of State' by residents of Northern Ireland.

Formerly holding a large portfolio over home affairs in Northern Ireland, the current devolution settlement has lessened the Secretary of State's role, granting many of the former powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State is now generally limited to representing Northern Ireland in the UK cabinet, overseeing the operation of the devolved administration and a number of reserved and excepted matters which remain the sole competence of the UK Government e.g. security, human rights, certain public inquiries and the administration of elections.[1]

Created in 1972, the position has switched between Members of Parliament from the Conservative Party and Labour Party. As Labour has not fielded candidates in Northern Ireland and the Conservatives have not had candidates elected to Northern Ireland Assembly or for House of Commons seats in the province, those appointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have not represented a constituency in Northern Ireland. This contrasts with the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales.

The Secretary of State resides in Hillsborough Castle, the previous residence of the Governor and the official government and royal residence in Northern Ireland, and exercises their duties through the Northern Ireland Office.


Historically, the principal ministers for Irish (and subsequently Northern Ireland) affairs in the UK Government and its predecessors were:

In August 1969, for example, Home Secretary James Callaghan approved the sending of British Army soldiers to Northern Ireland.[3] Scotland and Wales were represented by the Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Wales from 1885 and 1965 respectively but Northern Ireland remained separate, due to the devolved Northern Ireland Government and Northern Ireland Parliament.

The office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was created following the suspension, then abolition, of the Northern Ireland Parliament, following widespread civil strife. The UK Government was increasingly concerned that the Northern Ireland Government (at Stormont) was losing control of the situation. On 24 March 1972, it announced that direct rule from Westminster would be introduced. This took effect on 30 March 1972.[4]

The post effectively filled three roles which existed under the previous Stormont regime:[5]

Direct rule was seen as a temporary measure, with a power-sharing devolution preferred as the solution, and was annually renewed by a vote in Parliament.

The Sunningdale Agreement in 1973 resulted in a brief, power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, from 1 January 1974, which was ended by the loyalist Ulster Workers' Council strike on 28 May 1974. The strikers opposed the power-sharing and all-Ireland aspects of the new administration.

The Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (1975–1976) and Northern Ireland Assembly (1982–1986) were unsuccessful in restoring devolved government. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 15 November 1985, the UK Government and Irish Government co-operated more closely on security and political matters.

Following the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) on 10 April 1998, devolution returned to Northern Ireland on 2 December 1999. This removed many of the duties of the Secretary of State and his Northern Ireland Office colleagues and devolved them to locally elected politicians, constituting the Northern Ireland Executive.

The devolved administration was suspended several times (especially between 15 October 2002 and 8 May 2007) because the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party were uncomfortable being in government with Sinn Féin when the Provisional Irish Republican Army had failed to decommission its arms fully and continued its criminal activities. 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 of State was also heavily involved in the negotiations with all parties to restore devolved government.

Power was again devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 8 May 2007. The Secretary of State retained responsibility for policing and justice until most of those powers were devolved on 12 April 2010.[6]

List of office holders

Colour key
  Conservative   Labour

Name Portrait Term of office Political party Prime Minister
William Whitelaw 24 March 1972 2 December 1973 Conservative Edward Heath
Francis Pym 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 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 3 May 1997 11 October 1999 Labour Tony Blair
Peter Mandelson 11 October 1999 24 January 2001
John Reid 25 January 2001 24 October 2002 Labour
Paul Murphy 24 October 2002 6 May 2005 Labour
Peter Hain
(also Welsh Secretary)
6 May 2005 27 June 2007 Labour
Shaun Woodward 28 June 2007 11 May 2010 Labour Gordon Brown
Owen Paterson 12 May 2010 4 September 2012 Conservative David Cameron
Theresa Villiers 4 September 2012 14 July 2016 Conservative
David Cameron
James Brokenshire 14 July 2016 Incumbent Conservative Theresa May

See also


  2. "Home Office". National Archives Catalogue. National Archives. Retrieved 15 October 2011.
  3. Melaugh, Martin. "The Deployment of British Troops – 14 August 1969". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). University of Ulster. Retrieved 15 October 2011.
  4. Melaugh, Martin. "A Chronology of the Conflict – 1972". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). University of Ulster. Retrieved 15 October 2011.
  5. "Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972" (PDF).
  6. Mark Simpson (12 April 2010). "New era for policing and justice in Northern Ireland". BBC News. Retrieved 11 April 2010.
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