New Northern Secretary has silent encounter with Charlie Chaplin

Karen Bradley professes herself ‘absolutely delighted’ to be in Belfast after Tory reshuffle

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, walks past a statue of Charlie Chaplin before giving a press conference in Belfast on her first visit to the North. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, walks past a statue of Charlie Chaplin before giving a press conference in Belfast on her first visit to the North. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

“I am absolutely delighted to be in Belfast, ” were the first words uttered to the media by Karen Bradley on her first engagement in Northern Ireland as Northern Secretary, and, indeed, on her first-ever day in the North.

Some cynical reporters looking on in the Titanic Quarter on Wednesday morning, and mindful of how in Yes Minister a transfer to Northern Ireland was one of the great fears of the hapless Jim Hacker, wondered about this.

But we gave her the benefit of the doubt; on her first visit it would be bad manners to question her sincerity and her sanity.

British prime minister Theresa May in her wisdom had shifted Ms Bradley from the post of culture secretary.

Instead of regular visits to the Royal Opera House and the Royal National Theatre, Ms Bradley’s time in the North will be devoted to the mind- and heart-destroying political theatre of trying to coax Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill into working together again.

Ms Bradley, in her brief interaction with the press, used the word “challenge” several times. She was still reading her way into her brief, she acknowledged, and didn’t want to take any detailed questions.

For her first encounter with the Northern Ireland public, Ms Bradley’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO) minders brought her to Belfast Metropolitan College to meet staff and students.

And they were very mindful. The doorstep with the media took place opposite the college, close to the Nomadic ship visitor centre, and in front of three metal life-size figures, one of which was Charlie Chaplin with his walking cane.

But, citing “health and safety issues”, an NIO official moved reporters away from the first interview site to a position where Charlie would not be in the frame. No unnecessary pictorial jokes, please, on her first day in the North was the message.

Ms Bradley was appointed because her predecessor James Brokenshire had to quit office to undergo a lung operation. Most everyone wished him well. There were many tributes in which the key words were how he was “understated” and “patient”, which could be euphemisms for dull and cautious.

We wondered would she be more energetic and hands-on? From such a brief encounter, no judgment could be made. But she was easy, chatty and natural with the lecturers and students, so at the very least she will bring a bit of personality to the office that might work with Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill.