Newton Emerson: Karen Bradley can break logjam in the North
New Secretary of State could push for talks chaired by UK and Irish governments
Karen Bradley, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is, like her predecessor James Brokenshire, one of prime minister Theresa May’s home office proteges. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
It is a running joke in British politics that being appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland is a punishment.
Even in Northern Ireland, we assume the occupant of Hillsborough Castle – the secretary of state’s official residence – is suffering internal exile.
That genuinely was not the case with James Brokenshire, the perfectly named northern secretary, who resigned unexpectedly this week for health reasons amid a chaotic cabinet reshuffle.
Brokenshire is part of British prime minister Theresa May’s small inner circle, dating back to her time as home secretary. He has been described as her closest protege.
Considering how isolated May has been from the outset, dispatching Brokenshire to Belfast on her second day in the job was an intriguing move. It suggested May had a plan for Brexit and devolution that would preserve “the precious, precious” union, as she called it on her first day as prime minister.
No sign of such a plan has materialised, of course, but that has not soured the relationship between May and Brokenshire nor caused a rethink in Northern Ireland policy.
Brokenshire is due to have surgery, after which he hopes to return to frontline politics. He says he is stepping down in the interim because Stormont talks require full-time attention, although most Stormont parties feel the Northern Ireland Office has given them no attention.
Karen Bradley, Brokenshire’s replacement, is another of the prime minister’s home office proteges.
Reporting the reshuffle, the Times in London described Bradley and Brokenshire as “the closest thing [May] has to loyalists”; the Northern Ireland pun was presumably unintentional.
Bradley was already in the cabinet as culture secretary, so she has neither been punished nor promoted. It seems May just likes to have an ally in Hillsborough Castle – and the importance of this to the prime minister can only have increased, as she has dispatched yet another ally from her dwindling supply.
But to what end? The Northern Ireland Office has issued a steady-as-she-goes statement in Bradley’s name, the only notable line of which is a commitment to work closely with the Irish Government “as appropriate” – a promise to nationalists, qualified for unionists.
Even this is no conceptual break with Brokenshire – it seems we have entered Unbrokenshire. There is no time for a change of direction in any case, as talks must produce results by Easter – the end of the financial year – to avoid direct rule.
Throughout the political crisis of the past 12 months, Brokenshire’s approach was to sit back and let the DUP and Sinn Féin try to reach terms on their own, while he did the bare budgetary minimum to keep public services functioning.
This was the same policy followed by his Conservative predecessor, Theresa Villiers, during the three-year welfare reform crisis from 2012.
Villiers actually had been sent to Belfast as punishment – in her previous post as a transport minister, she fell out with prime minister David Cameron over airport expansion. But Cameron and Villiers worked seamlessly on Northern Ireland, with all attempts by Stormont parties to access Number 10 referred straight back to Hillsborough Castle. The message from the British government was: sort yourselves out.
A general fault of the nationalist position is that it expects the secretary of state to do nothing while fixing everything
This strategy appeared to be vindicated by the 2015 Fresh Start agreement, which excused Brokenshire taking the same approach – for a while. However, it has become painfully apparent that circumstances were no longer comparable. Brexit is an obvious complication, but the main difference is that Stormont was still operating while Villiers stood aloof.
Devolution in limbo
The same trick does not work with devolution in limbo. Brokenshire had to engage in too much financial tinkering and legal obfuscation to keep the lights on. As artificial talks deadlines inevitably came and went, this made him look weak – whereas under Villiers, it just made the DUP and Sinn Féin look like they were bluffing.
Nationalists voiced a particular objection to Brokenshire as not being an impartial talks chair – initially because he had voiced opposition to prosecuting former British soldiers over Troubles crimes, then later because of the DUP-Tory Westminster pact. A general fault of the nationalist position is that it expects the secretary of state to do nothing while fixing everything – although in this instance, the Alliance Party shared nationalism’s concerns.
Brokenshire appeared to get hung up on not appointing an independent chair, perhaps because his office did not want to concede the idea of the British government as a neutral administrator.
Yet the row was unnecessary – Villiers and Cameron had no issue appointing US diplomat Richard Haass as an independent talks chair in 2013.
If Bradley does not want to follow that example, there is another option.
The 2006 St Andrews talks, which restored devolution after Stormont’s last suspension, were jointly chaired by the British and Irish governments.
That arrangement once again looks “appropriate”.
May has invested a surprising amount of her political capital in Hillsborough Castle. It is high time somebody spent it.