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New man in the North

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST – John Reid, the Scotsman with the rough, tough reputation who has taken over as Northern Ireland secretary is already up against his first challenge. How to act on the Belfast court’s ruling on Tuesday that David Trimble’s ban on Sinn Fein ministers from attending cross-border meetings was illegal. But in the meantime, Reid lost no time in meeting all the parties at Stormont, cautioning against reports of a breakthrough on arms being touted by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.

Dr. John Reid flew to Belfast as soon as his appointment was announced last week, spent the weekend reading position papers, and met the main political parties on Monday. Afterward, he said progress was possible but "painfully slow" in coming.

Scottish-born of Irish roots, Reid was chosen by the prime minister, Tony Blair, to replace Peter Mandelson, who resigned last Wednesday in a messy scandal over claims he had lied to avoid being held responsible in a passports-for-sale affair.

Reid was the British secretary of state for Scotland.

Meanwhile, a meeting scheduled for today, Wednesday, between the Taoiseach and Blair, was downgraded on Monday from a "summit" to a "dinner" and newspaper reports that the IRA was about to permanently put some of its weapons beyond use were trashed by Sinn Fein and both governments.

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Reid takes over the helm at Stormont during a particularly difficult time for the peace process. He is a largely unknown quantity: a Catholic who is also known to be sympathetic to the British military top brass.

He also cautioned against believing a deal is close, as claimed by Trimble, who said last week he believed the British government had put forward proposals and that the Irish government was also putting pressure on republicans.

"We hope they’re going to come back and tell us precisely how they’re going to put the weapons beyond use in a permanent and verifiable way," Trimble said of the IRA in a BBC interview. "That will leave just simply the issue of policing and I hope that can be sorted out."

First Catholic

Reid is the first Catholic secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and was previously the first Catholic secretary of state for Scotland and is said to be equally proud of being both. Reid is also a Celtic football club supporter and formed a fan club at Westminster.

His deputy at Stormont, Adam Ingram, is a Rangers supporter and was briefly a member of the Junior Orange Order, an intriguing combination at the top. Reid is, therefore, sensitive to the kind of sectarian tensions that have bedevilled both Scottish and Irish working-class culture.

The last time the job was up for grabs, Reid and Mandelson were the frontrunners.

Reid’s roots lie deep in the Irish immigrant community in a part of Scotland where religious differences are still raw.

His Catholicism is said to be more cultural than devotional. He is regarded as liberal on abortion, for example. One of his grandmothers is Irish, the other from what he describes as "staunch Presbyterian stock."

Reid cultivates the image of a political heavyweight. A virtual non-drinker, he chain-smokes and likes to talk tough. One Scottish journalist described Reid as "one of those Scots who has taken advantage in London of the image most people have of Scots."

His character could be described as similar to that of the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen — blunt, straight-speaking and down to earth.

Reid was born in 1947. His wife, Cathie, whom he married in 1969, died in 1998 of a heart attack. He has two sons.

He joined the Labor party in 1968 as a student and has a doctorate in economic history. He briefly joined the Scottish Communist party in 1973 before rejoining the Labor party.

Since then, he has worked his way through the party hierarchy, moving from the left toward the center. Once in favor of nuclear disarmament, he is now a friend of the armed forces.

He has been a promoter of Scottish devolution to counter the nationalist threat and after the general election victory in 1997, he was made armed forces minister. Questions have been asked about his handling of the case of two Scottish soldiers who murdered a Catholic youth, Peter McBride.

He refused to meet the McBride family while agreeing to meet campaigners for the two soldiers’ freedom. The Pat Finucane Center in Derry says that, while armed forces minister, his officials provided false information to the McBride family.

In 1999, soon after he became Scottish Secretary a journalist secretly filmed his son Kevin boasting about the access he had. The scandal, dubbed Lobbygate, prompted a call for a public inquiry.

Last year, the controversy was rekindled when it emerged that Reid had been paying his son as a part-time researcher while he was working for the Labor party. The parliamentary standards watchdog found Reid guilty of abusing his position.

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