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Secretary of state says north's interests must be protected as Brexit looms

The new secretary of state wants to see the implementation of Stormont's recent agreements

THE new secretary of state has said it is vital that the north's interests are "fully protected" when the UK moves to leave the European Union.

James Brokenshire was speaking yesterday after being appointed to succeed Tory colleague Theresa Villiers at the Northern Ireland Office.

The 48-year-old MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup previously served as immigration minister in the Home Office and campaigned to remain in the EU ahead of last month's referendum.

He is regarded as a close ally of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Mr Brokenshire takes up his post amid widespread concern about the likely impact of Brexit in the north.

Alongside Scotland, a majority of people in the region voted to retain ties with Brussels.

Concerns voiced during the referendum campaign over the potential for a hardening of the Irish border remain to the fore.

In a statement issued by the NIO last night, Mr Brokenshire said it would be a great honour to serve as secretary of state.

The father-of-three paid tribute to his predecessor for her role in the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements.

He also echoed the prime minister's statement earlier this week about the "precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland".

"I know from my previous visits to Northern Ireland that it is a very special and valued part of our United Kingdom and which has so much potential as a place to invest and do business," he said.

The new secretary of state said a key priority was the implementation of the recent agreements, as was tackling paramilitarism, putting the executive’s finances on a secure footing, and addressing the legacy of the past.

"Another huge challenge is to ensure that we make a success of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union," he said.

"It is vital that Northern Ireland’s interests are fully protected and advanced including in relation to the border."

He said he was looking forward to working closely with the Stormont executive, the Irish government and the people of Northern Ireland.

Dublin Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan congratulated Mr Brokenshire and reminded him that the Good Friday Agreement was the "foundation stone for relations on this island".

"Under the agreement, the Irish and British governments have key responsibilities for upholding its principles and supporting its institutions," he said.

Mr Flanagan added that co-operation between the two governments had assumed even greater importance in the context of the challenges arising from Brexit.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed Mr Brokenshire's support for remaining in the EU and said the most important issue for his party was protecting the north's ties with Brussels.

"In his role as secretary of state he must act in the best interests of people of Northern Ireland, and I urge him to listen to his original instincts and ensure the democratic will here is upheld," he said.

Mr Eastwood also underlined the need to break the impasse around dealing with the past.

"That means accepting the needs of victims and survivors and and living up to their expectations," the Foyle MLA said.

"It means, in this post-referendum world, the British government accepting its duty to respect the position it holds as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement."

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