The United Kingdom secretary of state for Northern Ireland has come under fire after admitting that she lacked a basic understanding of the region’s politics when she took on the role earlier this year.
In an interview with The House, a magazine for the UK Houses of Parliament, Karen Bradley acknowledged that she “didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland”, including that “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa”.
On Friday, politicians in Northern Ireland reacted with dismay to Bradley’s published remarks, accusing her of adding to the troubled atmosphere of the region’s politics.
“We are not surprised that a British government minister did not understand the intricacies of politics here in the North,” Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, told Al Jazeera.
Northern Ireland, riven with sectarian tensions for generations, has been without a power-sharing executive – a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – for 20 months.
It collapsed in January 2017 in the wake of a financial scandal involving the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, resigned in protest and subsequent elections saw his Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party almost win power.
Talks to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, Belfast, have since stalled and the political deadlock recently saw Northern Ireland overtaking Belgium’s 589-day record of being without an elected government.
As the UK government’s ranking official on issues related to Northern Ireland, Bradley is tasked with leading efforts to restore power-sharing to the region. She replaced James Brokenshire in January and inherited a litany of problems, including ending the political stalemate and the future of the Irish-UK border.
“The British and Irish governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, need to meet urgently to agree a package of legislation to get Stormont back up and running. We cannot continue in this political abyss,” Eastwood said.
This week, the Irish government announced they would seek a separate agreement with the European Union on the status of their border – the UK’s only land border with the EU – to avoid further delay in agreeing its form.
The UK is expected to implement Brexit and leave the bloc in March 2019. In the case of a “hard Brexit”, no agreement would be reached with the EU and a presumptive “hard border” would return between Northern Ireland and the Republic – with checkpoints, as was effectively the case from the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago, and vastly increased wait times for cross-border trade.
Northern Ireland, already one of the poorest regions in the UK, relies heavily on cross-border trade.
In her interview, Bradley also waded into another critical flashpoint in Northern Irish politics – the legacy of the Troubles, some 30 years of violent conflict that ended with the Good Friday Agreement.
There have been attempts by Conservative MPs to prevent the prosecution of British army personnel for crimes committed during the Troubles that have been identified by public prosecutors.
“I do not want to see veterans being hounded,” said Bradley. “They’re being hounded today, and I want to change that. If it wasn’t for the actions of the military and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), we would never have got to the point where the Good Friday Agreement could ever become a reality.”
The RUC – the police force in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – was a deeply controversial both for its means of operation and its overwhelmingly Protestant, unionist make-up. Since the end of the conflict, it has attracted attention for alleged collusion between its officers and unionist paramilitary groups in the killing of civilians during the Troubles.
In Northern Ireland the issue of amnesty for the Troubles is a controversial one: the bloodshed was not one-sided and the legacy of violence is inherently complex.
A Downing Street spokesperson said UK Prime Minister Theresa May remains confident in Bradley’s ability, adding that she “is working closely with the parties there”.
Bradley’s immediate priority is the restoration of the Stormont Assembly. Earlier this week, she announced the cutting of deputies’ salaries starting November if no solution is reached.
Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the major parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP, who also did not respond to request for comment – are still as far apart as ever on key issues, including the adoption of an Irish Language Act which would give the Irish language equal status with English.