Sunday 16 December 2018

New NI Secretary faces challenging task as politics more polarised than ever

Karen Bradley
Karen Bradley

Colm Kelpie

Imagine being an eager young MP, hoping to get that much sought promotion to the ministerial ranks, only to be told that you’re being dispatched off to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Your task includes breaking a deadlock between two political parties so diametrically opposed, that they have become incapable of solving their own problems.
Throw Brexit, the border conundrum, and the Tory deal with the DUP into the mix, and you have a tough job.

That role now falls to Karen Bradley, a Conservative MP for just under eight years representing a constituency in Staffordshire, who takes over the role now vacated by James Brokenshire.

Ms Bradley, a chartered accountant and the former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, will be little known in Northern Ireland, much like her predecessor. Whether she has any particular interest, or even detailed knowledge of the North, remains to be seen.

She takes on the job at a hugely challenging time, with politics in Northern Ireland stuck in a rut from which there appears no escape, polarised as never before.
Next week marks the year anniversary of the collapse of Stormont when Sinn Féin pulled the plug on power sharing over a scandal surrounding a green energy scheme and questions about DUP leader Arlene Foster’s involvement.
Since then, though, the RHI scandal has dissipated, and Sinn Féin’s main demands are more around the need for a standalone Irish language Act and the legalisation of gay marriage. On neither front has the DUP or Sinn Féin conceded.
In Westminster, the DUP form of unionism dominates, and is the loudest voice from Northern Ireland. With the loss of the SDLP's seats, and Sinn Féin's continued abstentionism, nationalism is no longer represented.
Ms Bradley has pledged to meet the various parties and groups over the coming days, as she argues forming an Executive is her "top priority".

The Conservatives, though, whom Ms Bradley represents, are hardly blameless either.

The unfolding Brexit process and the Tory/DUP pact have complicated matters further.

Northern Ireland drifts along essentially rudderless, facing funding challenges in health and education in particular, with the two big parties abdicating responsibility.
Talks have taken place. Deadlines have been missed and were extended by Mr Brokenshire, before being missed again.
That, and the delay in tackling the issue of MLA pay, arguably cast a shadow over Mr Brokenshire’s authority and credibility.

Ms Bradley would do well not to make the same mistakes.
But even if, either through the involvement of an independent chair or some other diplomatic feat, power sharing is restored, the ability, and willingness of Sinn Féin and the DUP to hold it together, is under question.
Brexit also looms large on the horizon.
Questions remain as to how the agreement secured last month between Brussels and London - lauded by Dublin as a means of ensuring the border remains open - will work in practice, or whether a final deal can be secured at all.
While that will largely be dealt with by Brexit Secretary David Davis, the new SoSNI will be needed by her political masters to keep the DUP happy while also ensuring she avoids any suggestion of favouring one community over another.
Northern Ireland has been quietly sinking deeper and deeper into a political hole.

It’s hard to see what Mr Brokenshire’s replacement can do to change that, even if she has the ability or interest.

But try she must.

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