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New secretary of state faces uphill challenge

New secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, who takes over a year after the collapse of the Stormont institutions, should be in no doubt about the scale of the challenge that she faces.

Her appointment was not anticipated and came after James Brokenshire announced his surprise resignation yesterday ahead of Theresa May's cabinet reshuffle.

The outgoing secretary of state is leaving for health reasons. He revealed he is about to undergo surgery for a lesion on the lung and said his priorities are his long term health and his family.

Warm tributes have been paid to Mr Brokenshire, with both political allies and opponents sending him best wishes as he deals with his health issues.

While the circumstances of his leaving are unfortunate, Mr Brokenshire's time in the north will be seen as well meaning but ultimately ineffective in terms of securing the restoration of the executive.

Of course, the blame for the failure of talks cannot be laid completely at the door of the secretary of state but it was clearly unhelpful that his government was so closely aligned to one of the key parties involved.

In that sense, Mr Brokenshire could not present himself as an even-handed referee, seeking to mediate between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Furthermore, his efforts to pressurise the parties into reaching agreement by imposing deadlines were not taken seriously and even the contentious issue of MLAs' salaries was dangled as a threat but not followed through.

Mr Brokenshire's successor needs to inject some energy and impetus into the process and there needs to be a recognition that the Irish government has to play a role if we are to get devolution restored.

A year of political stasis has not been good for Northern Ireland. Our public services are limping along, the health service is in crisis and school budgets are being squeezed yet there is no political leadership or sense of direction for the year ahead.

Politically, we are in a bad place and something needs to change.

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