Northern Ireland: Bradley faces an uphill task

Bradley’s decision to come to Belfast so quickly after her appointment demonstrates a seriousness of purpose

 

The arrival of new Northern Secretary Karen Bradley in Belfast yesterday, just two days after her appointment, was a positive sign that she is interested in getting the powersharing institutions up and running again.

She faces an uphill task in attempting to achieve what her predecessor James Brokenshire could not manage over the past year. The continuing controversy prompted by the inexcusable behaviour of Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff has made an already bad situation even worse.

The unavoidable decision of Brokenshire to step down for health reasons is a real pity. When he took over the position after the accession of Theresa May as prime minister in September 2016, few people in Ireland had heard of him.

He quickly demonstrated a real commitment to the job and spent a considerable amount of time in Northern Ireland. He brought his family over for regular visits – in sharp contrast to his predecessor Theresa Villiers, who gave the impression she wanted to spend as little time as possible in the North. Brokenshire also showed a far greater willingness to come to Dublin on a regular basis to meet senior Government figures. But despite his best efforts he could not manage to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin to find a way of working together.

Nationalists questioned his independence after the deal between the Conservative Party and the DUP, which kept Theresa May in office and, however unfair the charge, his ability to act as honest broker was compromised.

His failure illustrates the task facing Bradley, who had never set foot in Northern Ireland before yesterday. Her decision to come to Belfast so quickly after her appointment and to come to Dublin tomorrow to meet Tánaiste Simon Coveney demonstrates a seriousness of purpose, but that alone will not be enough to turn things around. Everything will depend on the attitude of the DUP and Sinn Féin and whether they are willing to make the compromises necessary to work together again. Sadly, the evidence to date is that they are not.

The grossly insensitive behaviour of McElduff towards the families of the Kingsmill massacre victims has made compromise all that more difficult to achieve. The claim that he was unaware of the potential insult is simply not believable. The mildness of Sinn Féin’s disciplinary action – a three-month suspension from the party – has not helped matters. Mary Lou McDonald’s insistence that the response was “appropriate” has certainly not assuaged the anger of the victims’ relatives.

Sinn Féin has made much of the DUP’s failure to respect the concerns of nationalists on the Irish language and gay rights, but the lack of respect shown to the victims of IRA terror has made those sentiments appear hollow.

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