Northern Ireland

Shadow Secretary of State Louise Haigh: My hero Mo Mowlam would have got the job finished

Louise Haigh's first months as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been dominated by the Covid pandemic, Brexit and legacy issues. She spoke to Allison Morris about Mo Mowlam, Brandon Lewis and her love of Belfast

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh

WITH her bright red hair, Louise Haigh cuts a striking figure among the mainly grey-suited men on the floor of the House of Commons.

The youngest Labour member of parliament at the time of her election in 2015, the working-class Sheffield woman first stood in for Tony Lloyd as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after the veteran MP was hospitalised with Covid, before being appointed full-time to the post by party leader Keir Starmer.

"I wasn't expecting to be in the shadow cabinet at all, not least because I'd chaired Lisa Nandy's leadership campaign, so it was extremely gracious of Keir to offer me a job," she laughs.

"I wasn't expecting any promotion so was really surprised when I got the call as I sat in my garden in Sheffield."

She credits the "typically gracious style" of Mr Lloyd for seamlessly passing the baton to her.

It was however, serendipitous given that the woman who first attracted Ms Haigh to the Labour Party, her political hero Mo Mowlam, was arguably one of the most successful Secretaries of State.

"Mo was always one of my heroes and she continues to inspire me in the role. I think if she had remained in post, she would have cracked on and fulfilled a lot of the outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

"A huge part of that is a Bill of Rights and women's rights in particular.

"I look at the work I've done over the last five years over domestic and abuse and how women are treated by the welfare system and those issues are just the same, if not compounded, in Northern Ireland and they need a laser-like focus.

"Because of the debate here (Westminster) from a British perspective, those issues often get overlooked.

"I really hope I can bring some attention to them."

Not exactly a stranger to these shores - "I first visited in 2008, me and some friends visited Belfast on the evening of my graduation" - Ms Haigh adds that "my very good friend from school now lives in Belfast so I have visited her many times".

"I love it, and if I'm honest, even though I wasn't expecting a shadow cabinet job, this was the one, if I'd designed it, I would have wanted because it encompasses so many different issues, I can stick my nose in to all sorts of different policy areas, it's fascinating.

"It really reminds me of Sheffield where I grew up. It's very similar in the attitudes of people, it's a big city with a village mentality and has beautiful countryside with very friendly people. A lot of the amazing things about Northern Ireland are represented in Sheffield as well, so I feel very at home."

A former Special Constable in the Metropolitan Police, Ms Haigh has immersed herself in our fractured, complicated and often contested history, her first act being to read the Good Friday Agreement from cover to cover.

"I did read that the very second I was appointed," she says.

"I was the shadow policing minister beforehand and I have a policing background. It's always been seen as a security-type brief and that's why I think it's often held by men. I'm the first woman since Mo Mowlam to hold this post for the Labour Party.

"I found Siobhan Fenton's book on the Good Friday Agreement helpful, my chief whip recommended I read John Stalker's book about his inquiry, I read David Trimble's autobiography, I basically ordered everything on Northern Ireland I could get my hands on.

"My Amazon delivery driver asked me at one stage if I'd developed a bad habit."

Setting out to meet as many people as possible in her first year in the job has been hampered by the pandemic, limiting travel and face-to-face contact, but she did manage to meet with some victims' groups last summer when restrictions were eased.

"Because I took it on in April, everything has been pretty much via zoom or phone since then. So much in the role is about relationships and when you only have that relationship virtually it's really hard. I want to build trust and rapport.

"I was very concious taking on the role how important legacy was going to be in the immediate term, not least because the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis had just made his statement as I took over that departed from the Stormont House Agreement.

"He made that in such a unilateral way that it really shocked and hurt victims.

"There is a set of proposals to be built on and delivered. It's already too late for many and we're losing people in the process".

In December, when Brandon Lewis announced there would be no public inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, Ms Haigh was scathing of his decision, saying it was a "painful setback" for those who had campaigned for the truth.

"On issues like this we should be working in a bipartisan way. I just don't think Brandon Lewis has it in him to work in a constructive way across the house and everything seems to be dictated by internal Tory party politics. We've seen that play out in so many different ways over the last 10 years, not just in relation to legacy but also in relation to Brexit.

"I've had that frustration and anger reflected back to me so many times in Northern Ireland by people who feel they are reduced to a political football for the internal games of the Tory Party."

She says relations with local parties are now much better, particularly with the DUP who had a fractious relationship with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn,

"This role requires speaking and talking to people that I've never had any previous contact with at all. The relations are really good and the unionist parties were keen to have a reset relationship with the Labour Party under Keir Starmer.

"I think the problem from a British perspective is that Northern Ireland is often shaped by its past and the political debate is around its past and we don't see it or think of it in terms of its future.

"I don't think that is really seen or celebrated enough from a British perspective, it is too often seen as a problem to be solved rather than something to be celebrated.

"That's not to ignore or minimise the significant challenges Northern Ireland still faces."

Since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, Ms Haigh is one of a number of female MPs who have faced death threats and intimidation.

"I always feel quite conflicted talking about it because the more you talk about it the more threats you tend to get, it also puts off women and minorities from standing," she says.

"The vast majority is pretty pathetic but some of it can be worrying, it's been a scary few years... I've had to have panic alarms fitted in my house and security measures.

"When I was growing up there were so few young female politicians in sight and so few who came from my kind of background, now we've so many more of those figures in public life that can be an inspiration for the next generation, and so although it 's tough it will only change when there is a critical mass of us pushing back."