Britain’s new Direct Ruler in Ireland Karen Bradley has visited the North where she was welcomed as a “good unionist” by DUP MP Ian Paisley.
Her appointment fits the mould of the ‘safe pair of unionist hands’ set down by her predecessor, James Brokenshire, who unexpectedly resigned last week. The Tory minority government currently relies on the votes of DUP MPs to remain in power, and her initial statements were clearly made for unionist ears as she called for “strong devolved government... in the interest of the whole United Kingdom”.
Wednesday marked Karen Bradley’s first visit to Ireland in either a professional or personal capacity.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said meeting the newly appointed Direct Ruler was “incredibly useful”. She called for junior Direct Rule ministers to be appointed to take over the functions of the Stormont Executive.
“We have made it clear to the Secretary of State that if Sinn Fein continues to block the restoration of devolution then a return to Direct Rule is an unfortunate, but inevitable consequence and the Government must move to appoint ministers,” she said.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill had been due to meet Mrs Bradley in person, but a phone call was instead arranged between the two politicians, with the meeting put back to next week.
Mrs O’Neill said she told Ms Bradley in their phone conversation that the British government needed to “change its approach” if renewed efforts to restore the powersharing Executive are to succeed.
“They have not acted with the rigorous impartiality demanded of them by the Good Friday Agreement and therefore cannot be seen as an honest broker in any negotiations process,” she said.
“This partisan approach has only been underlined by their pact with the DUP which completely eradicated any last pretence of impartiality. However, I am determined to try and reach agreement on the right basis which can restore equal partnership government in the short time ahead.”
Mrs O’Neill said the Tories needed to “stop enabling and defending the DUP’s denial of rights”.
“I told the secretary of state that an immediate measure she should take to instil some confidence in the process would be to finally grant the lord chief justice’s request to release the required funding to allow legacy inquests to go ahead.”
In a video message as she arrived in Belfast, Bradley said: “I’m really, really thrilled to be here today in my first visit in this incredible role that I’m honoured to have been given as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that we face and there is a big job ahead of me but I’m looking forward to getting down to business, getting stuck in and making sure we try to solve those challenges and address them so we can really deliver what I think everybody wants.
“Which is strong devolved government for the whole community in Northern Ireland and in the interest of the whole United Kingdom.”
The north has been without devolved government since Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned a year ago, triggering the collapse of the institutions.
Subsequent months saw two prolonged rounds of talks chaired by Mr Brokenshire conclude without agreement.
Ms Bradley is now being urged to find a neutral mediator to restart negotiations.
In a statement, the Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney said the political situation had “become unsustainable” last year due to the failure to implement previous agreements.
Sinn Fein this week erected a billboard at Free Derry Corner in Mr McGuinness’s native Bogside, quoting his declaration on resigning that there would be “no return to the status quo”. There “would be no return to the status quo”, Mr Kearney repeated.