Leading article

Brokenshire in stormy waters

Like the waters of Lough Foyle, relationships between the Irish and British governments have regularly ebbed and flowed through many difficult and complex decades.

The Dublin and London administrations have often found themselves veering between confrontation and conciliation, although the pattern for the last 20 years has been an overwhelmingly positive one.

Senior figures on both sides have taken the time to listen to other views and develop an understanding of the sensitivities and subtleties which are inevitably in place during all discussions.

The power-sharing Executive at Stormont is dominated by nationalist and unionist politicians who work together but obviously retain sharply diverging constitutional priorities.

Both traditions have usually been reassured by the way in which ministers from The Dail and Westminster have maintained a measured overview of the proceedings and generally provided a calming influence during periods of turbulence.

It therefore came as a considerable shock to the system when the Northern Ireland secretary of state Theresa Villiers aggressively departed from established conventions during the EU referendum earlier this year and even ended up canvassing in unionist districts with the DUP.

The disastrous Brexit campaign may have narrowly succeeded in Britain but was decisively rejected here in circumstances which would have left the position of Ms Villiers untenable if she had not been swiftly replaced by James Brokenshire.

Unfortunately, Mr Brokenshire, who has been handed a difficult portfolio and may well have an eye on DUP votes in an increasingly tightly balanced House of Commons, has so far appeared equally happy to alienate himself from mainstream nationalism on both sides of the border.

His dismissive approach to issues linked to the legacy of the Troubles has caused a widespread degree of concern which is well illustrated by the pertinent advertising initiative from the Pat Finucane Centre published in today's paper.

Mr Brokenshire's ill-judged intervention in the previously relaxed debate on Lough Foyle and potentially its Carlingford counterpart was at least equally alarming and crucially failed to acknowledge the key role of the relevant cross-border agency established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

His curt response to a parliamentary question had to be publicly contradicted by the Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan and the episode caused entirely unnecessary tension at a stage when the focus should clearly have been on finding a consensus over the Brexit crisis rather than seeking out additional sources of conflict.

If the latest resident of Hillsborough Castle really believes that his jurisdiction extends all the way to the actual shores of counties Donegal and Louth, he may yet find the tides of history turning firmly against him.

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