Now presided over by Conservative Owen Paterson, the NIO was tasked with running the Northern Ireland departments under direct rule. The criminal justice brief made the journey across the Irish Sea on 12 April to the newly established Department of Justice.
In the absence of those powers, its stated mission is now two-fold: to support devolution and to make sure that UK-wide policy takes account of all circumstances in Northern Ireland.
The department is split between Belfast and London, though when the Secretary of State is visiting he will stay at Hillsborough Castle. As well as representing Northern Ireland at Cabinet level, the current Secretary sits on two cabinet committees: the National Security Council (NSC) and the Home Affairs Committee. The NSC looks at terrorism and intelligence while the home affairs brief focuses on political and constitutional reform.
William Whitelaw was the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and 17 MPs have since held the brief. The Home Office was responsible for Northern Ireland policy between 1921 and 1972.
Responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland as well as human rights, elections policy and the legacy of the Troubles remains in the office’s hands. The Electoral Office prepares for and runs elections in the province while the independent UK-wide Electoral Commission oversees the finances of parties.
Now a much-reduced ministerial team, the NIO employs a team of two: Paterson as Secretary of State and Hugo Swire as Minister of State.
The office has been allocated £18.8 million for its ministers and political work in 2010- 2011; the wider criminal justice budget is still labelled as NIO expenditure in Treasury estimates.
Up until 12 April, the previous Minister of State had responsibility for criminal justice, security, policing and prisons. As those powers are now under Stormont control, Swire holds none of that remit but is still technically responsible for national security issues here – and thus is a ‘security minister’. The NIO will refer to Swire only as Minister of State to avoid ambiguity.
The office’s counterpart in the Republic is the Department of Foreign Affairs and it also works closely with the US State Department, given America’s interest in the peace process. Within Whitehall, its work links in closely with the Ministry of Justice’s oversight of devolution as a whole and the Home Office’s co-ordination of national security.
Its London headquarters is based in Millbank alongside Mi5 while locally NIO staff made the move from Castle Buildings to the red-bricked Stormont House after the Department of Justice moved in.