New Northern Secretary Karen Bradley meeting Tánaiste on Friday
Tory MP on her first day in Northern Ireland says she is ‘here to learn’
Karen Bradley with students at Belfast Metropolitan College in the Titanic Quarter during her first visit to Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
The new Northern Secretary, Karen Bradley, flew back to London on Wednesday evening after her first visit to Northern Ireland amid renewed recriminations between the DUP and Sinn Féin on the failure to re-establish the Northern Executive.
After meeting with the leaders of four of the North’s main parties, and after speaking again by telephone with Sinn Féin Northern leader Michelle O’Neill, the Northern Secretary was apprised of how deep the chasm is between the two main parties.
Ms Bradley is to meet the Tánaiste Simon Coveney in London on Friday to try to devise a means for breaking the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
Ms Bradley, on her first engagement as Northern Secretary and first day in Northern Ireland, gave details of the scheduled meeting when she visited the Metropolitan further education college in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast.
Ms Bradley said the “Irish Government has an important role to play” in the efforts to end the impasse.
She made clear she would need some time to come to terms with her brief before any such move is attempted.
“I know there are challenges but I am absolutely determined we will find a way through those challenges. We need to deliver devolved government to Northern Ireland as soon as possible and that is what I am determined to do,” she added.
“My immediate challenge is to ensure that Northern Ireland has a devolved government in place in order to address the issues that affect everyone’s lives,” she said.
Ms Bradley then travelled to Stormont House where she met the leaders of the DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties. She was unable to meet Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Ms O’Neill because of what both Sinn Féin and the Northern Ireland Office described as diary problems but they are to meet face to face next week.
After the Stormont meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the “clock was ticking” for a deal. But she said if agreement was not possible then Ms Bradley should move to introduce British direct rule from Westminster.
“I think she has heard directly today from people that they want to see government back here and if it’s not going to be a devolved administration then it will have to be some sort of an administration direct from Westminster,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said Ms Foster’s call for direct rule in the absence of agreement made clear that the DUP had “no interest in resolving the issues at heart of the current crisis and no interest in re-entering powersharing on the basis of equality and respect”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, calling for inclusive talks, said Ms Bradley could have “no honeymoon period” in her new post.
“The DUP and Sinn Féin can no longer abdicate their responsibility and they can no longer be allowed to veto dialogue between all parties. The process of disempowering people, on Brexit, on our health service, on schools and on public services, that has taken place over the last 12 months must come to an end,” he said.
“If there are parties that want to exclude themselves then they need to get out of the way and stop preventing those of us who want to do the job from doing so,” he added.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said she had a positive and constructive meeting with the Northern Secretary and that Ms Bradley struck her as a politician who “would not let the dust settle on her portfolio” although she would need some time to come to terms with her brief.