We need a Secretary of State who is taken seriously

Posted By: July 07, 2017

Distributed by Irish National Caucus


My gut instinct that he [Brokenshire] has no interest in Northern Ireland

Alex Kane.Irish News. Belfast. Friday, July 7, 2017

[Alex Kane describes himself as  “an unashamed, unambiguous, unembarrassed unionist.”]    

Had Theresa May inherited a more comfortable majority from David Cameron last July, I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t have picked James Brokenshire to replace Theresa Villiers (remember her?) as Secretary of State.

And had she actually won a majority in her own right on June 8, I’m also pretty sure she wouldn’t have kept him in office. Put bluntly, he owes his position in the cabinet to the fact that May’s choices were so limited and that he backed her leadership bid last summer. Mind you, had he been on the Leave side of the Brexit debate (as was Theresa Villiers) she wouldn’t have chosen him. He is, bless him, a bit like the geek that team captains don’t want to end up with when picking squads on PE day.

My own problem with Brokenshire is my gut instinct that he has no interest in Northern Ireland, no interest in dealing with the local parties, and no desire to take a hands-on responsibility. He’s actually worse than Villiers; who always gave the impression that her time here was a political exile rather than a ladder of opportunity and experience.

Brokenshire has the uncanny and slight eerie knack of being simultaneously present and absent in a room or press conference; and nothing sums him up better than Hughes Mearns ‘Antigonish’: `Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish, he’d go away.’

The most effective Secretary of State is someone who is taken seriously by all the key players. Brokenshire isn’t one of those. To be honest, I’m not even sure he counts as a key player in his own right. The prime minister undermined him when she called an election during the last round of negotiations. He was undermined again on Tuesday when, hours after his statement to the Commons (“I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable…possibly as early as this week”) he was forced, the following morning, to close everything down until the autumn.

I’ve heard him described by some local politicians as, ‘just a puppet.’ That’s grossly unfair—to puppets: They, at the very least, have a hand or strings working them to some purpose. No one seems to be working him and he doesn’t appear to have any purpose in the talks process. And so weak and spineless is his response to every new setback and snub that the only conclusion to draw is that if it wasn’t for huge quantities of starch in his shirts he wouldn’t be able to stand upright. He’s the political equivalent of a pavlova; albeit one which has deflated after being removed from the oven far too early.

What he hopes to achieve by autumn is anyone’s guess. In fairness, it would be better to put him out of his misery and place him somewhere his talents would be better appreciated—assuming, of course, such a role exists. Maybe he’ll spend the summer cold-calling former senators and advisers to see if they’ll step in and knock some local heads together. Or maybe he’ll just sit down with a forest of calendars and almanacs and see if there’s a potential new deadline somewhere between the 12th of Never and a day when there isn’t a DFS sofa sale. He knows, of course, that it doesn’t matter what date he sets: nobody in Belfast, London or Dublin will take it, let alone him, seriously.

I may not always have agreed with Peter Brooke, Patrick Mayhew, Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson, Paul Murphy, Peter Hain, Shaun Woodward and Owen Paterson, but they were clearly ‘players’ in political terms. They were well briefed, understood the mood music and nuances and knew how to bend ears and minds when necessary. They were interested in the place. They could count on prime ministerial support as and when required. Brokenshire is not in that league. A Secretary of State with the required clout and gravitas could probably have stepped in last November and December and prevented the collapse of the executive: or, at the very least, have ensured a soft and manageable landing.

He should be moved aside: although he probably won’t be, primarily because all of May’s available political talent is required to prop her up in London. But if the assembly crashes—which looks increasingly likely—it will add a very dangerous and destabilizing factor to her existing problems. So, she needs to replace him. She doesn’t have the luxury of leaving a deflated pavlova in charge of Northern Ireland at such a crucial time.

More than once Brokenshire has warned of the “dire and profound consequences” of not cutting a deal. Well, those dire and profound consequences would be he running Northern Ireland from Stormont and Hillsborough. In any normal circumstances that possibility would be more than enough to scare warring factions into an agreement. But, as I keep saying, there’s nothing normal about this place.