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Brokenshire - a year of blandness

A year on from James Brokenshire's appointment as secretary of state Political Correspondent John Manley assesses his time in office...

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has faced accusations of being too close to the DUP

A year ago when the previously unheard of James Brokenshire was appointed Northern Ireland secretary of state, journalists at his local paper in south London were asked about their MP. It seemed rather odd at the time but they didn't have a great deal to say. "Business-friendly" was one description, however, beyond that they found it difficult to characterise the former immigration minister.

With 12 months hindsight, it's easier to understand why the responses were so brief and lacked any insight. It's hard not to talk about James Brokenshire without sounding, at best, critical.

In his predecessor Theresa Villiers we thought we'd encountered by far the north's most detached and trite secretary of state, however, the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup is in a league of his own.

The few media interviews he gives are exercises in verbosity and subterfuge – so many words but so little actually said. Some may regard such presentation as a great political skill but when delivered by James Brokenshire, its effect is to numb listeners to the point where they disengage through a combination of mental fatigue and bafflement.

But just because he has the personality of a motorway services car park doesn't automatically make him a bad secretary of state – it's his record in office that does that. Even a writer for the Tory-friendly magazine The Spectator agrees, labelling his performance in the north as "hapless" and describing the 49-year-old as "out of his depth".

It's perhaps unfair to lay the entire blame for an inconclusive, lacklustre talks process at the secretary of state's door but he certainly can't escape unscathed. Even before last month's election and the subsequent confidence and supply deal with the DUP, Mr Brokenshire already appeared too convivial with Arlene Foster's party, sharing a platform at last year's Tory party conference and agreeing to address a fund-raising breakfast in October, which was cancelled only after concern from local Conservatives.

His stance on legacy issues, as you might expect, chimes perfectly with that of many unionists – both of whom erroneously claim former members of the state forces are being disproportionately prosecuted. Mr Brokenshire chose to air these controversial sentiments in a newspaper article in January – on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Given his obvious allegiances, it's not difficult to sympathise with nationalist claims that the secretary of state isn't impartial.

Other shortcomings Sinn Féin point to include Mr Brokenshire's failure to compensate victims of historical institutional abuse; his refusal to release funds for Troubles inquests and his dogged defence of the British government's 'national security' veto.

"James Brokenshire did none of these things and as a result, the crisis in our institutions has only deepened and lengthened," Michelle O'Neill told The Irish News.

Funnier but no less illustrative of his lack of nous was the manner in which he avoided standing to the national anthem when attending January's Dr McKenna Cup final in Newry. Instead of joining the crowd for Amhrán na bhFiann, he instead hid in the Pairc Esler control room, where he was later said to be "talking to staff".

The Irish News's request for an interview with the secretary of state's to mark his first year in office was declined, however, the Northern Ireland Office did respond to a number of questions on his behalf.

Mr Brokenshire said his objectives when appointed were around economic prosperity, safety and security and "to see that Northern Ireland's interests are protected and advanced as the UK departs from the EU". He is pleased that the regional economy "continues to grow" – albeit slowly – and that unemployment is at its lowest level for a decade.

He believes the security threat from dissident republicans has diminished but the "lethal intent of a small group of individuals" remains.

In regards to Brexit, the former 'Remainer' is pleased the north's specific circumstances are central to the negotiations around the UK's departure from the EU.

"I think there is a genuine sense of goodwill on all sides to see that positive solutions on the border and other key issues are achieved," he said.

The secretary of state said restoring the executive remains his "key priority" but on claims that the Tories' closeness to the DUP is hindering a successful outcome to the talks, he merely says: "Criticism is part of politics."

The highlights of his tenure to date were a visit to Enniskillen Integrated Primary School before Christmas, the aforementioned McKenna Cup final and watching Ulster play Edinburgh at rugby.

The most negative moment was "the shameful and completely unjustified shooting of police officers in January at a petrol station in north Belfast", while politically the collapse of the executive was "the biggest disappointment".

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