Karen Bradley has admitted that before becoming Northern Ireland secretary she was profoundly ignorant of the country's political divisions and "slightly scared" of the place.
She said she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists – the most elementary fact about Northern Ireland politics.
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” Ms Bradley told House magazine, a weekly publication for the Houses of Parliament.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
“Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.”
Theresa May appointed Ms Bradley to the post in January – succeeding James Brokenshire – at an exceptionally sensitive time because of Brexit and the breakdown in Stormont's power-sharing government.
Ms Bradley’s admission prompted astonishment that she had risen so far in the Conservative party and government without knowing that Northern Ireland voters split along constitutional lines.
Theresa May sent the former culture secretary to Belfast supposedly as a safe pair of hands. Ms Bradley (47) said Northern Ireland politics had seemed alien to her.
"That's a very different world from the world I came from where in Staffordshire Moorlands I was fighting a Labour-held seat as a Conservative politician and I was trying to put forward why you would want to switch from voting Labour to voting Conservative. That is so incredibly different and it's when you realise that, and you see that, that you can then start to understand some of the things that the politicians say and some of the rhetoric."
The Troubles had shaped her view of Northern Ireland, she said. “I was slightly scared of Northern Ireland because of my impression and images from 20 years ago. That is not the place that it is today.”
House magazine quoted Jenny Chapman, the shadow Brexit minister, calling the admissions embarrassing. "Given this worrying lack of basic knowledge about Northern Ireland, it's no wonder the Tories don't seem to understand the vital importance of preventing a return of a hard border there". – Guardian