Government complacent on Northern Ireland - Ivan Lewis

Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis is on his first official visit to Northern Ireland

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Labour's new shadow NI secretary has warned that the government are "being complacent on Northern Ireland".

Ivan Lewis is in Belfast meeting local politicians and is a guest speaker at the Ulster Unionist Party conference on Saturday.

The Bury South MP became shadow secretary of state in Labour leader Ed Miliband's reshuffle earlier this month.

He is on his first official visit to Northern Ireland.

In his first interview since his appointment he told the BBC that "the vast majority of people I meet think that the government are not focused, whether it is on the economy or on the Haass talks".

Mr Lewis said he intends to visit Northern Ireland regularly in his new role and maintained that the Labour Party are "incredibly proud" of their role in the peace process.

He said he wants to meet as many people as possible and his political philosophy will be "listen, learn and then lead".

Responding to Mr Lewis' comments, a spokesman for Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: "It's disappointing that just a few days into the job and with virtually zero knowledge Ivan Lewis has begun by parroting the rubbish of his predecessor - who was himself invisible in Northern Ireland over the summer.

"This is a government that brought the G8 to Northern Ireland, delivered a highly ambitious economic package, is on the side of hardworking people and is engaged fully with Richard Haass - as demonstrated by his visit to Downing Street this week where he met the PM.

"Ivan Lewis is new to Northern Ireland and should actually take time to find out the facts before he starts sounding off."

Experienced operator

Mr Lewis has already met First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Mr Lewis may be a stranger to Northern Ireland and a largely unknown figure to local people, but in England he is an experienced political operator.

An MP since 1997, he entered parliament when Labour swept to power and he served as a minister of state for nine years under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

He worked as minister for skills and education and economic secretary to the Treasury. He was also a health minister, a minister for Africa and later a minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 46-year-old has worked closely with Mr Miliband in recent years and helped draft the "One Nation" strategy.

Mr Lewis may have an impressive ministerial c.v. but he insists politics is about what you can achieve rather than what you are.

He believes "politics is a vocation not a career and I always believed it is not the title you hold but the difference you make that really matters".

Advice

The MP will find Northern Ireland's political agenda very different from his previous job. He was until recently shadow international development secretary.

There is no shortage of advice for the new man.

Ulster-born Labour MP Kate Hoey said he must visit Northern Ireland "as much as possible" and meet community groups "at every available opportunity". The Vauxhall MP says the new shadow secretary must "not rely on briefings from political parties but hear from local groups at first hand".

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said Vernon Coaker, Mr Lewis's predecessor, will be "a hard act to follow". The DUP MP said he needs to show attention to detail and said there "was a perception years ago that Labour gave less attention to unionists". He said Mr Coaker "changed that perception".

Kate Hoey said she hopes that Labour's new spokesman will recognise Labour Party members in Northern Ireland and show support for their efforts to run candidates in future elections.

However, Mr Lewis said for the time being that "is not going to happen". He said the position is reviewed every year and it has to be "handled with great care".

South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has already met Mr Lewis in his new role. She said his priority should be to encourage the local parties that the "institutions at Stormont must work better", and instil in Sinn Fein and the DUP a "greater sense of sharing".

Mr Lewis arrives in the post in the middle of an inter-party talks process chaired by the former US envoy Richard Haass. He raised the talks process in his first question at Northern Ireland Questions to the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

He said that whatever proposals are brought forward in the weeks ahead they must not be "a sticking plaster" but must provide "a route map to implementation".

Dr Haass is to hold further talks with the executive parties later this month. He is expected to complete his discussions by Christmas.

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