Northern Ireland news

Karen Bradley to do 'bare minimum' in absence of devolved government

Six months into her job as secretary of state, Karen Bradley remains cautious on the big issues facing a government-less Northern Ireland. She tells Political Correspondent John Manley that she plans to maintain a light touch

Karen Bradley says she will do the 'bare minimum' in the absence of devolution. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

KAREN Bradley says she spends every day thinking about how to break the Stormont impasse.

If she has any fresh ideas about how the format of future talks may differ from those that broke down acrimoniously in February, the MP for Staffordshire Moorlands isn't sharing them.

All she'll say is that she won't rule anything out, including outside mediation, and that the best thing for Northern Ireland is devolved government.

"Everywhere I go people raise with me things that really are making a difference to their lives that could be changed if there was an assembly sitting in Stormont," she says, adding that she shares people's frustrations.

Mrs Bradley's aim is to get an administration that's sustainable but "it will only be that if it's what the politicians want".

In the meantime, it appears the plan is to stick with the current 'limbo' administration, even if one of the consequences is inertia.

'We're doing the minimum we need to do to ensure public services continue'

In response to news that the Department of Infrastructure won't appeal the High Court's ruling on the Hightown incinerator, which underlined the view that senior civil servants can't make strategic policy decisions, the secretary of state says simply that she will do "what needs to be done".

"But I'll do it in a measured way that has the support of the main parties so that I can demonstrate cross-community support for what I've done, and we're doing the minimum we need to do to ensure public services continue."

On a similar theme, she says currently the only people with authority to make appointments to the Policing Board, the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission (NIJAC) and the Probation Board, are ministers – hence her plan to bring forward Westminster legislation in the autumn that will enable vacant posts to be filled.

When reminded that the Commissioner for Public Appointments has recently raised concerns about the lawfulness of appointments made by senior civil servants in the absence of ministers, Mrs Bradley says each must be looked at in turn.

"There are different kinds of appointment, some have to be done by a minister, some can be done by officials in the civil service," she says.

Again she insists she will only do the "bare minimum" required.

Consumer confidence in the north fell dramatically in the second quarter of the year

'I am not a spokeswoman for Peter Robinson' 

Turning to Peter Robinson's recent comments about unionists preparing for the possibility of a united Ireland, the secretary of state at first responds by saying she isn't a spokeswoman for the former DUP leader.

When reminded that as a Conservative and Unionist Party representative she is arguably one of those Mr Robinson was addressing, Mrs Bradley cites Theresa May's commitment to the union during a recent speech in Belfast.

"That's the position of the Conservative government in terms of the union; that's the position in terms of our commitment to Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom," she says.

When it's suggested to her that the Tory leader's remarks are the sort of 'blind loyalty' mentality the former DUP leader is speaking of, she again refers to the prime minister's Belfast speech.

"I can't put it any better than she did," the secretary of state says.

Read more: Lack of Stormont government dents consumer confidence in the north

Dublin and Brexit

Questions about the Dublin government's Brexit negotiating stance are again met with "I'm not here to speak on their behalf" before Mrs Bradley says she won't act as a "commentator".

"That's not really my role, is it?" she says.

"My role is to speak for what I believe and the UK government believes – they (Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney) will speak for themselves."

However, the secretary of state insists she has a "good relationship" with the taoiseach and tánaiste, especially with the latter, who has a "real interest" in matters in Northern Ireland.

On Brexit, Mrs Bradley says she campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU because as a chartered accountant, she is "risk averse".

Her job now, she says, is to respect the referendum outcome and make sure Britain leaves the structures of the European Union.

"But we are not leaving Europe," she adds.

She envisages an "outward looking" country and doesn't want a inward-looking, "drawbridge UK".

Mrs Bradley agrees with her party leader's assertion the EU backstop's creation of a border in the Irish Sea means it does not command unionist support and, therefore, breaches the Good Friday Agreement.

She also says Theresa May's Chequers deal on the UK's future relationship with the EU is far from dead and offers a better solution.

However, she declines to say whether a proposed facilitated customs arrangement to try to avoid a hard border will command the support of the nationalist community.

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