We complain about our politicians being arrogant and dishonest. But Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is in trouble for her candour and modesty. Interviewed for The House magazine she said:
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa. So, the parties fight for the election within their own community. Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”
There are certainly many Conservative MPs who will have gained a stronger grasp of Ulster politics. On the other hand there will be many others who might well be just as baffled as Bradley was when she took up her new job in January. A Sinn Fein politician has attacked her for being a “slow learner”. But her comments provide no evidence for that. On the contrary, elsewhere in the interview she puts emphasis on the work she has done to “get into the policy detail” and that she is thoroughly absorbed in her role, finding Northern Ireland “wonderful”.
This is not to suggest that all her decisions have been right. Or rather her indecision. Nor that she has as much authority to resolve matters as she might like. Bradley is very much a loyalist to the Prime Minister and given the sensitivities over the reliance on the votes of MPs from Democratic Unionist Party for a majority in the House of Commons there will be particular constraints from Downing Street. Progress in getting the Northern Ireland Assembly functioning has proved slow. Stormont was suspended 20 months ago. Her decision to cut the salaries of its members by £13,000 each until it starts to operate again might concentrate minds. Let us hope so. Without direct rule (which in the absence of devolution the DUP has called for) or a functioning assembly, matters are being left to drift.
Then there is the issue of Brexit. Both Bradley and Theresa May appear to have a sincere anxiety that withdrawal from the European Union could risk a break up of the United Kingdom by prompting a majority in Northern Ireland to back a united Ireland. Earlier this year the Prime Minister told Jacob Rees-Mogg that we “cannot be confident” that the unionists would win a referendum on the border. These are warnings that Bradley has endorsed. But experts on Northern Ireland that we have spoken to see no evidence that this should prove to be the case. As Henry Hill points out the opinion polling indicates a continued clear majority in Northern Ireland for staying in the UK. There was also the strong showing by the DUP in the General Election last year.
If there were to be a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – with customs checkpoints and so forth, that would certainly be highly unpopular and problematic. But such a scenario is complete fantasy – even under a WTO “no deal” Brexit. It would not be established on the UK side of the border. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, says the Irish Republic won’t have one on their side either. The EU says they would not seek to impose it. As Mark Wallace has patiently explained there is already a border which Irish and British customs authorities would carry on in the same way they do today.
There is nothing dishonourable in Bradley’s modesty at the daunting and complex challenges she found herself facing. But a more confident, assertive and positive tone about the prospects for Northern Ireland would now be welcome.