Alex Kane: Karen Bradley doesn’t get the nuance of politics here, and worse she is a lightweight

Alex Kane

Does it really matter that Karen Bradley, by her own admission, knew almost nothing about Northern Ireland before she was appointed secretary of state?

Alex Kane: Like David Trimble in 2003, Arlene Foster lacks the authority to lead unionism

Karen Bradley, the secretary of state, "didn't seem to know much about the local parties and how they fought elections". Photo by Simon Graham Photography

She had never been to the place: doesn’t even seem to have a connection by way of a great-great-great granny twice removed on her father’s side (the sort of thing politicians like to throw into the conversation to give them a bit of ‘street cred’).

Didn’t seem to know much about the local parties and how they fought elections: “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought... people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties... actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.”

How did she not know this?

When she was first elected in 2010 the Conservatives had an electoral pact — UCUNF — with the UUP.

When she arrived at the Commons she must have been aware that there were more abstentionist Sinn Fein seats than SDLP seats and that the UUP had no seats.

When she was appointed secretary of state she would have known that her party had a pact with the DUP.

How do you reach cabinet level in the UK and not know about the nature of politics in Northern Ireland?

How do you not understand that a PR system usually forces like-minded parties into electoral battles with each other?

Put bluntly, how are you even regarded as the best candidate for the post of SoS when you have as much knowledge of Northern Ireland as I do of Narnia?

In one sense, though, lack of knowledge was never going to be an obstacle.

Mrs May’s dependence on the DUP means that, in terms of pecking order, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster are always going to be more important to her than Karen Bradley.

That lack of importance is a huge problem for Bradley. Usually the SoS will try and nudge parties together in a way that fits the interests of both governments and keeps the DUP and Sinn Fein reasonably content; but in her case she has to get it through the DUP first — which makes it much more difficult to then get it past SF.

But here’s the question that really intrigues me: from where did Mrs Bradley gain all her subsequent knowledge of Northern Ireland’s history and political problems?

It’s an important question, particularly since the locals don’t even have an agreed narrative or understanding.

In other words, what’s her reading, her interpretation if you like, of what’s happening here?

She will, of course, have been briefed by NIO staff and by her own special adviser (with input, too, from people like Jonathan Caine, the Conservative Party’s uber specialist on NI).

She will have talked to party leaders and key people from the business, civic and voluntary sectors. And the Irish government will also be keeping her briefed, too. Who knows, an occasional column from me might even cross her desk.

How does she decide what is relevant? Everyone will be giving her conflicting and often totally contradictory information and blaming each other for failure.

Many outside the ‘political’ zone don’t actually really care anymore about the Assembly; they just want somebody to make a decision.

The civil service — which looks to her for a steer in the ongoing absence of an executive — doesn’t want to be lumbered with making decisions.

That’s not their role. Their job is to implement policy — with accountability flowing to a minister or secretary of state.

Phil Hogan, Ireland’s EU Commissioner, makes a very good point about key people and the knowledge they require: ‘You don’t learn that overnight. You have to feel it, and hear it on a regular basis before you get the nuance of what the political dimension is to the fragility of the peace.’

The problem with Bradley is that she clearly doesn’t have enough background knowledge and the present fraught circumstances (particularly with Brexit and the sheer toxicity of the DUP/SF relationship) means that she will never be on top of her brief.

She doesn’t understand the nuance, subtlety and undercurrent of politics here and probably never will.

Worse, she is a lightweight. She doesn’t have clout within the cabinet or across the backbenches.

It’s not her fault that the government’s dependency on the DUP has rendered her impotent; but it is her fault for not knowing that she isn’t up to the job. She doesn’t have the personal authority, nor the support from the prime minister, to knock heads together and be taken seriously.

And, believe me, she isn’t taken seriously by the people who really matter here. They don’t fear her. They don’t hang on her opinion. They know her status is that of a puppet. A political lightweight is fine when the assembly is generally stable and all the SoS has to do is smile, host garden parties and cut a few ribbons here and there: but it’s not fine when the future of the Good Friday Agreement is being questioned, when the key parties are poles apart and when no-one knows the final fallout from Brexit.

That’s when you need a big-hitter; a good, old-fashioned political bruiser.

Mrs Bradley has been here for exactly eight months. I don’t know if she’s any better informed about the place than she was on January 8.

I don’t know if she particularly cares about the place. I don’t know if she has a ‘personal’ view about the place. Her difficulty — and, in fairness, it would be a difficulty for any SoS whose boss was being propped up by the DUP, or any other local party for that matter — is that she has become part of the problem.

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