THERE was a time when Northern Ireland Secretary was a major (if not particularly attractive) cabinet job.
Even after the secretary of state’s security role during the Troubles had waned after the ceasefires, the importance of the ‘peace process’ meant that the minister was in regular contact with the prime minister and senior world figures.
And the role of direct rule ministers meant they had power akin to that of a colonial governor allowing the secretary of state, as Peter Hain records in his memoirs, an unparalleled ability to decide on issues such as planning or health without electoral consequences.
Since the restoration of stable devolution, the received wisdom was that the role was shorn of any serious day-to-day responsibilities and there was speculation that the position would be abolished and replaced with a “minister for the regions” or the like.
Owen Paterson’s promotion yesterday shows that the role still had value, at least to aspiring ministers.
While other cabinet ministers such as Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley or Jeremy Hunt in challenging departments have faced calls to resign over crises in their departments, Mr Paterson has quietly managed to build a reputation for competence, no doubt aided by the fact that the NIO is so small the secretary of state could just about know all the staff by name.
The absence of a pressing workload has allowed him to speak out on a series of issues for which he does not have responsibility — from Europe, to gay marriage, to economic policy — and in the process become popular with grassroots Tories disillusioned with the direction of the Coalition.
That is not to say that he has done nothing in Northern Ireland.
Mr Paterson has single-handedly revived the campaign to devolve to Stormont and then slash corporation tax after Gordon Brown rejected it, and even some of his opponents remarked upon the energy with which he went about selling Northern Ireland as a place to do business.
Mr Paterson will also be remembered by unionists as the first secretary of state since the ceasefires to unambiguously state that he was a unionist and who outspokenly supported this newspaper’s campaign for a Belfast homecoming parade for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008.
Sinn Fein and the DUP will have been delighted by Mr Paterson’s departure as neither Peter Robinson nor Martin McGuinness attempted to hide their growing annoyance at the “meddling” Mr Paterson who frequently criticised what he saw as Stormont’s inaction.
Some of that annoyance stems back to the role which Mr Paterson played in the UUP-Tory election campaign of 2010 where he quite happily bashed the DUP and disconcerted republicans by talking openly about his unionism.
But more fundamental than that issue was the lack of access which they now enjoy to the upper echelons of the government.
Both men complained bitterly at how when they requested to meet the prime minister he would tell them to go and talk to Mr Paterson.
Despite the new incumbent of Hillsborough Castle, that is unlikely to change (though some in the NIO would like it to) as the demand that they first meet the secretary of state comes from Mr Cameron himself.