Is Karen Bradley the right sort of minister for the assertive job she needs to do?

What does a new minister who knows very little about the issues say to the self -regarding personalties of Northern Ireland politics when she first enters the  room? Assuming Gerry Adams is among them, here’s one figure who has put his arm round Bill Clinton and has had contacts on and off, indirect or close, with three US presidents, four British prime ministers, seven taoisigh, and around (I make it,  give or take) nineteen preceding secretaries of state? Since Paisley died and Robinson retired, the DUP have no one comparable. Then again to balance up, Adams is leaving the front line and the DUP have their pact with the Conservatives; but that’s another complicated story.

How much does continuity matter in a role where the minister survives for an average of two years? Not so much perhaps, in those rare periods unlike now when the prime minister was very much in charge – i.e  in the days of Tony Blair eliding into Gordon Brown, when personalities as different as Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson, John Reid and Peter Hain held the post and were able to tack one way or another without creating a loss of focus and instability. In those days, big issues required big beasts. The one serious piece of disruption caused by a change of secretary of state  came in 1973, when faced  a UK crisis over the miners’ strike and the three day week, Ted Heath pulled Willie Whitelaw out of  the Sunningdale agenda and replaced him with the frankly bewildered Francis Pym. But that is ancient history. A quarter of a century on, Blair had more space to work on than the beleaguered Heath or any of his other successors.

Ever since the creation of the Chuckle Brothers, Conservative-led governments have in their hearts declared the Northern Ireland situation solved.  The frequent passages of disruption were seen as rites of passage for new learners in the skils of government. Most of the identity stuff passed them by. Devolution after St Andrews in 2006-7  meant the locals had to grow up and face  problems whose solutions they understood far better than Westminster did or Dublin.

Cameron withdrew easy access to the Downing St sofas and was  even prepared to outsource diplomatic efforts to Washington think tanks.

But Whitehall’s anbition to create a single Secretary of State for all devolved areas was frustrated not only by Northern Ireland but the rise of sentiment for Scottish independence.

Disengagement could not be complete partcularly when it involved money, a commodity which local politicians preoccupied with their identity struggles tend to dismiss as vulgar. And so in annual intervals Theresa Villiers, a minister who had to be moved from a junior role at Transport because she was opposed to HS2, presided over the failed sticking plaster of the Stormont House Agreement of 2013 -15.

Dominated by  Brexit which overlaps into our domestic situation,  Theresa May  steadfastly refused to go into crisis mode. She left the response to her  old Home Office trusty James Brokenshire who talked clockwork and has sadly  retired hurt.

Under duress of his sudden departure, Karen Bradley’s appointment signals no change of strategy and will require a delay until she reads herself in.  Her background reveals no interest in Ireland, or history or negotiating skills, the interests that so entertain our own crowd and by which they tend to judge others.

However, Ms Bradley’s known skills may not be so  inappropriate. The hard-headed accountant and tax expert who has also questioned Rupert Murdoch’s final bid for Sky, may be just the person to shame the parties into resuming their responsibilities. Otherwise, she seems to have the skills of making a fair fist of managing direct rule.









Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Best of luck to Karen Bradley. I hope she considers getting together with the Irish Republic to agree matters such as health, pensions and transitional arrangements before any border poll so that voters can give informed consent to reunification.

    Michel Barnier’s speech this evening.

    Where allowed by our legislation, we will be able to consider some of the United Kingdom’s rules as equivalent using a proportionate and risk-based approach […] the real transition period has already started […] A trading relationship with a country that does not belong to the European Union will never be frictionless […] for the first time in the history of our trade relations, it is not a question of encouraging regulatory convergence but of managing divergence. [emphasis added]

    Brexit – Next Steps

  • Cadogan West

    KB has no track record dealing with things Irish. She has never kissed the Blarney Stone nor sung Nell O’Flaherty’s Drake. She managed to get tied up with a Sky deal with Murdoch, that’s about it. Her remit is not getting into bed with the ROI government, her remit is to try to get a NI government established. I doubt this will happen, the mothballs have already been delivered to Stormont. My fly on the wall on Horse guards says it will be the next GE or Millennium before it gets going again. As for border polls they are real fairy stories as old as the Silk Road. The May government is obviously going for Hard Brexit, the antics of the Cabinet eg Davis demonstrates they just want out regardless of a deal.

    I should also add HM government does not take any notice of what Barnier or other Eurocrat says or does

  • Georgie Best
  • Georgie Best

    Bradley might have some knowledge of invoices, VAT and so forth, and she might not be shameless enough to pretend that the delinquent policies of the government she is part of is not going to impede trade and create huge bureaucratic obstacles for SMEs.

  • Cadogan West

    No, they are going for bust, ie Hard Brexit Barnier et al are an irrelevance to HMG, FCO say its ” Fog in Channel Continent cut off”

    The above asks if KB is right for the job. Well no, whoever they send over is never going to get it going. When Mo Mowlam was SOS, an acquaintance told me an amusing anecdote. Apparently the Duchess of Kent called to see Mo one day, who answered the door in her slippers and nightie saying Oh Hello duckie!

  • Cadogan West

    Davis is clueless just the man to do Brexit!

  • Salmondnet

    .” The May government is obviously going for Hard Brexit”. Promises, promises. If only that were true.

  • Indeed Georgie
    Saw the leaked letter in the FT earlier
    True lu this UK government is totally out of its depth

    Outgunned, outclassed and whining about unfair treatment

    So far it has been signing on the EU dotted line for slow learners and I can’t see it changing

    As Brian pointed out there was a time when the NI job was given to some of the brightest and best both under previous Tory and Lab governments, but the last three have been lightweight

    I do hope KB has what it takes at such a critical period

  • CB

    Karen Bradley has a reputation as an absentee landlord in her own constituency as she disappeared at the first sign of difficulty when the local hospital was threatened with closure. That closure is now proceeding at pace, while Karen sends her staff to take the flak at public meetings and dials in a weekly column to the local rag full of platitudes and waffle.

    Nothing in her background inspires confidence.

  • Fir Bolg

    You seem like a Brexiteer.
    Good for you.
    My 10 cents is that there’ll be a fudge.
    You seem like a No deal camp.
    I hope you are right.
    It would be worth it just for the English automobile industry alone.
    Appartently Nissan has a secret deal that they’ll be paid for ANY losses due to Brexit.
    Estimates for Nissan see the British Government pay them between 300 million to 1 BIllion a year
    Spread that out and it could cost 5 Billion per year to prop up the UK motor industry.
    I’d love to see that money come from the Scotland and Sic County subvention!
    Take that DUP.

  • Cadogan West

    Davis has not done his homework, silly boy! They will just end with no deal my fly on the wall in Horse guards indicates.


    Bradley ought to be well-clued in for the task ahead then…

    Or perhaps not.

    Doesn’t she know there are quite a few of us here who aspire to bringing about a united Ireland that is independent of UK administration? I have no interest in Ireland or Irish interests suffering in the interests of the UK or its stability. In fact, I find the notion intolerable and unacceptable. Bradley obviously hasn’t a baldies about the nuances and intricacies of the north. As British as Finchley, they say…

    If the British government returns to legislating on all matters for the north (although paragraph 5 of the section dealing with the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in strand 3 pf the GFA states that the Irish government should also have an input via the conference into this process over non-devolved matters, which would be everything at present), won’t they be bound by the St. Andrew’s Agreement to introduce an Irish language act? Maybe the DUP should be careful what they wish for.

    The DUP deny having any red lines, but their insistence upon no Irish language act (amongst other issues they have) is evidently a pre-set condition or a boundary they will not cross – a red line, in other words – for they would be prepared to implement prior agreements and get the institutions back up and running again otherwise.

    It would be interesting to see how the DUP would deal with such a scenario; Westminster introducing an Irish language act for the north with the Irish government being given a say too. Seeing as they’ve previously dismissed the language act as being a UK government commitment, as if they didn’t undersign the relevant agreement too, would they actually accept it if the UK government did come good on the commitment?

    Bradley and the Tories, who are supposed to be impartially ensuring the agreements are adhered to and fulfilled, should obviously be exerting pressure upon the DUP, in order to encourage the party to drop their intransigent stance, by warning them that they (the UK government) will implement an Irish language act (as obliged) in the event of “direct rule” anyway, but of course that can’t and won’t happen because the Tory government is reliant upon the DUP’s votes to prop them up in Westminster. It’s a ridiculous situation that effectively renders Bradley, or anyone else who occupies the role of northern secretary, impotent for fear of getting on the wrong side of the DUP.

    The notion of the secretary of state being an honest and impartial broker is a dubious one regardless, seeing as they’ll always be a representative of the British government and its interests (which are inherently entangled with the north of Ireland given the centuries of involved and partisan history), but the DUP’s present relationship with the Tories just makes a complete mockery of the role.