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by GK Strategy 16th January, 2018
3 min read

From the ‘Ministry of Fun’ to difficult decision-making: a tough job for the new Northern Ireland Secretary

There is little doubt that Northern Ireland Secretary is one of the less enviable posts in the cabinet. Tony Blair once pranked Ed Balls by offering him the post in a reshuffle before swiftly sending him to the Treasury, while one Northern Irish political leader described it as a ‘thankless task’.

It is unlikely that Karen Bradley left 10 Downing Street jubilant last week after learning she would be trading in the so-called “Ministry of Fun” for a job refereeing disagreements about agreements in Belfast.

Effective Secretaries of State will confirm that the key to success in Northern Ireland is being able to build relationships and win the confidence of those both inside Stormont and out of it. Former Secretary James Brokenshire’s hands-off, decision averse approach did little to win hearts and minds and ultimately saw the collapse of the institutions on his watch.

Treated with indifference by the local political establishment, he found his deadlines disregarded while calls grew for an independent, third-party chair to take his place in mediating the cross-party talks. He was a man averse to controversy, and as such, struggled to control controversial times in Northern Ireland.

The unexpected vacancy at the Northern Ireland Office has come at an apt time, presenting a useful opportunity to freshen up personnel at Hillsborough Castle as the talks process has gone stale. Indeed, Bradley’s first day in the job marked a year since the deputy First Minister’s last day in his, providing a symbolic springboard for the new Secretary of State to kick off in her new job.

Bradley is in many ways the continuity candidate. Like her predecessor, she has been groomed for high office under Theresa May’s watch at the Home Office and comes into the role with little prior knowledge or connections with the region.

She also shares a low key, conformist approach and her unblemished political past makes it difficult to form a view of who she really is as a politician. It was for these reasons that her appointment was met with relative apathy among a local population who see little as having changed.

In this context, it seems that the Prime Minister has missed a trick in not opting for a blockbuster candidate with the gravitas to get and hold the attention of Stormont’s political players. According to the maxim, actions speak louder than words and May’s failure to appoint a bona fide heavyweight implies that the Government’s vocal commitment to the restoration of the institutions is hollow.

It also suggests that Number 10 hasn’t quite grasped the magnitude of the issues in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the frontier of the Brexit project, which has been rejected by its population, and has been without a government for over a year – tandem threats to both the societal and constitutional stability in the region.

Northern Ireland Secretary is a tough gig for any Conservative politician in the current climate. They are tasked with caretaking the delicate relationship with the DUP to protect the small majority in Westminster while coaxing Sinn Fein onside, who cannot be seen to lose face among their electorate who came out in droves to ‘stop Tory cuts’ twice in the last year.

Once around the table, they must be able to orchestrate a deal to get the Executive back up and running. A diplomat, they are responsible for nursing relations between Dublin, London and Belfast, and then selling the Government’s Brexit agenda firstly to their DUP partners – who have already forced a change to the phase one agreement – but also nationalists and border communities who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. Moreover, the longer the current political impasse extends, the more the spectre of direct rule will loom as they find themselves making decisions a functioning Executive would otherwise be expected to make.

It is a packed in-tray and one which demands an authentic, credible candidate with the experience and political clout to deliver its demands. It is now up to Bradley to prove she is ready to rise to the task.

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