James Brokenshire, a 48-year-old Tory MP and junior Home Office Minister based in Kent, has been named as the new British Direct Ruler in Ireland after Theresa Villiers was dropped from the post.
The announcement by the new Tory leader and British Prime Minister Theresa May of her new ‘Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’ came on the second day of a major cabinet reshuffle.
A close ally of the new PM, Brokenshire served as Security Minister under May before she replaced David Cameron earlier this week. He was in favour of remaining in the European Union during the Brexit referendum and was a firm supporter of May during the leadership race.
Villiers resigned earlier on Thursday after reportedly refusing a demotion to a junior Ministerial post. Her reputation in Ireland had been in tatters after years of pro-unionist intransigence, but her post became politically untenable when she adopted a strong pro-Brexit stance, against the wishes of a majority in the Six Counties.
The 26 Counties Foreign Affairs’Minister Charlie Flanagan congratulated Brokenshire on his appointment and said he hoped “to have the opportunity of an early meeting with him”.
“The post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland carries significant responsibilities on important matters that remain within the competence of Westminster, such as security, parades and dealing with the legacy of the past,” he said. “I wish Mr Brokenshire the very best as he assumes this important responsibility.”
However, it is unclear if British policy on Ireland will change under the new Direct Ruler and Prime Minister. From May 2011 to May 2015, Brokenshire served as Security Minister as the Home Office with responsibility for “domestic national security and counter terrorism”. This included oversight of the work of MI5 and police intelligence. He was also part of David Cameron’s “extremism taskforce”.
He inherits a legacy of policy failures and unresolved controversies, most prominently Villiers’ failure to deal with the legacy of state killings during the conflict. Efforts to advance truth, justice and reconciliation in the Six Counties have been repeatedly stymied by Villiers under the pretext of “national security”.
The departing Direct Ruler said she was “sad” to leave her Irish post and claimed that she leaves the political situation there in a more stable position than it has been for many years”. She said she was “confident that progress will continue to embed peace, stability and prosperity”.
But there were no tears from nationalists at her departure, and no great welcome for her replacement. Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said “Theresa Villiers will be no loss - all British secretary of states should stay over there”.
Sinn Fein Assembly member John O’Dowd said Villiers’ input to politics in the North would not be missed.
“I wish Theresa Villiers well personally but politically she will not be missed,” he said. “She has been the representative of a British government which inflicted austerity, welfare cuts and now Brexit on the people of the North.
“She also played a negative role in dealing with the legacy of the conflict, continually placing obstacles in the path of families seeking access to truth.
“The position of Secretary of State is unnecessary. It should be abolished and all remaining powers of the NIO transferred to the Assembly.”