The UK’s 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 to 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”.
Northern Ireland, which has been riven with sectarian tensions for generations, has been without a power-sharing executive – a key part of a 1998 peace deal – for 20 months.
Its government 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 nationalists Sinn Fein party almost win power.
Talks to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly at the Stormont Estate near 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 has been tasked with leading the 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.
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.
“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,” added Eastwood.
The implementation of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement requires cooperation from the British and Irish governments. This week, the Irish government announced they would seek a separate agreement with the European Union on the status of the border to avoid further delay in agreeing its form.
The UK, which is due to leave the bloc in March 2019, is currently a member of the Schengen zone which allows for free travel between it and other EU member states such as the Republic of Ireland.
The shape of the UK’s involvement in various treaties, including the Schengen agreements, has left the future of the border in doubt.
In the case of a “hard Brexit”, no agreement would be reached and a presumptive “hard border” would return – along with checkpoints, as was effectively the case throughout the Troubles from the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago, and vastly increased waiting times for cross-border trade.
Northern Ireland, already one of the poorest regions in the UK, relies heavily on cross-border trade.
While all parties state their opposition to a hard border, backbench Conservative MPs in London have shown a willingness to prioritise trade agreements over immediately assuring a soft border.
In her interview, Bradley also waded into another critical flashpoint in Northern Irish politics – the legacy of the Troubles.
There have been attempts by Conservative MPs to prevent the prosecution of British army personnel for crimes committed during the Troubles, including attempted murder, which 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: bloodshed was not one-sided and the legacy of violence is inherently complex.
Bradley’s remarks on the investigation of crimes allegedly carried out by the British army during the Troubles appear to position her alongside some others in her Conservative party in a way which has not been settled UK policy.
Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Bradley’s immediate priority is the restoration of the Stormont Assembly. Earlier this week, she announced the cutting of deputies’ salaries starting in November if no solution is reached.
But the major parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP, who also did not respond to request for comment on this article – are still as far apart as ever on key issues, including the adoption of an Irish Language Act to recognise the Irish language.
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”.