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