Karen Bradley on the Border: ‘We will make it work’
Northern secretary upbeat on Brexit after St Patrick’s Day events in Washington
Karen Bradley: “The answer is for politicians who were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to get back into Stormont and run the executive.” Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
This week, Bradley had her first experience of the Irish-American St Patrick’s Day, flitting between the White House, state department and Capitol Hill – 17 gatherings in all.
This year’s festivities were overshadowed somewhat by the decision not to invite Sinn Féin leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, and DUP leader Arlene Foster to the reception.
On the controversy, Bradley is unsurprisingly diplomatic, saying it is up to the White House. “The fact is that the invitation goes to the first minister and the deputy first minister – neither of those people are in the post at the moment.”
But the move was widely seen as an effort by Washington – with the tacit backing of the governments in London and Dublin – to increase pressure on the two parties to get back to the negotiating table.
Patience is running out among the public as much as the two governments at the ongoing political impasse in the North. Indeed, the Belfast Agreement is being questioned by some.
Last week, Bradley introduced a budget for Stormont. Is this direct rule through the back door? “Look I’ve heard those comments,” says Bradley. “I didn’t want to be making that budget.
“I didn’t want to have to deliver it. I wanted that to be done by the politicians who were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to do it. You can’t leave a part of the United Kingdom without a budget.
“That is not something that is acceptable to the British government,” she says, adding the budget process was done in close consultation with all parties and civil servants.
Next week, Westminster will assume powers to cut the pay of Stormont MLAs – a prelude to a cut itself. Bradley says she will make a final decision once the legislation is passed.
“You have to go through proper processes and make sure people have had the chance to comment. The answer to all of this is for politicians who were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to get back into Stormont and run the executive.”
This message was repeated endlessly during the week, but with the political stalemate now into its second year, it is becoming jaded. On Leo Varadkar’s suggestion that the British and Irish governments might table their own proposals after Easter, Bradley says this has not formally been worked out yet, but she doesn’t rule it out. Similarly, the idea of some sort of interim or consultative assembly is also a possibility. “I’m looking at all the interim measures that have been suggested. It would be wrong for me to not to.”
However, she is more supportive than Varadkar of the appointment of a special US envoy: “Clearly the US administration can appoint someone if they feel that’s appropriate,” says Bradley.
“But we need to think carefully about how that would impact. They’ve been clear throughout that they don’t want to do anything that could jeopardise the possibility of getting devolved government back in Stormont.”
Work is in train in the state department, but finding someone acceptable to both sides will be difficult.
Bradley took over after James Brokenshire resigned due to illness. She is upbeat about the job. “It’s such an honour to have the role,” she says, adding that Brokenshire is recovering well.
A no-nonsense former management consultant and Manchester City fan, the 47-year-old is a close ally of Theresa May. While she backed the Remain side in the Brexit referendum, she toes the party line when it comes to Brexit, telling a gathering of officials at the British embassy this week that the British people voted “decisively” to leave the European Union.
She repeats her party’s mantra that all will be fine in the North after Brexit. “The British government is absolutely committed to the commitments we made in the joint report that was agreed before Christmas.
“While it may seem a challenge too far, we will make it work . . . [and ensure] that there is no border in the island of Ireland or on the Irish sea.” How that can be done is another matter.