My guess is that Karen Bradley knows diddlysquat about Northern Ireland, its troubles and its peace process. Accuse me of stereotypical thinking if you will, but I am not sure that a background in Maths and Accountancy will be the most useful, although experience with budgets and her time as Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime may well come in handy.
Meanwhile, at a personal level, I would wish the departing Secretary of State, who is suffering health problems, well – although it will be difficult to miss someone who apparently told The Irish News that a highlight of his tenure was a visit to an integrated primary school. For Karen Bradley’s benefit we should explain that this will have been one of the minority of schools in Northern Ireland* where Protestants and Catholics (few of whom may have seen the inside of a church, actually) go to school together. She will quickly learn* to use only the phrase “Northern Ireland” because to describe it as a region, province, country, the North, six Counties let alone the deeply inaccurate “Ulster” are all fraught with peril.
If she has woken up this morning thinking “oh shit”, then that is a good start. She will find people queuing up to offer advice and pointers. May I, as a British middle-class, middle-aged woman – albeit one with a more than superficial understanding of the quagmire into which she has been sent, and one who would rather choke on a pretzel than vote Tory — offer my own appropriately humble suggestions for a To Do list.
1. Do not automatically assume that the DUP are saints and Sinn Féin are shinners. See the current state of affairs in Northern Irish politics as temporary and contingent – matters in Northern Ireland are always temporary and contingent – and as gridlock rather than a stalemate between them’uns and them’uns (see my other piece on why and how Language Matters).
2. Immediately release the £10 million of funding for over 50 outstanding inquests into Troubles-related deaths promised in the Fresh Start Agreement. This would be an immensely powerful symbolic action. It would instantly show that the Secretary of State values justice and the needs of the victims and survivors above political gamesmanship. It would also show that the Conservative government has no fear of the truth.
3. Enjoy Hillsborough. It is a stunningly beautiful place. Spend lots of time there, rather than treating it as an occasional B&B. Use it as a base for becoming familiar with all of Northern Ireland. Relax. Go to Derry and take the official tour of its walls and the unofficial Bogside tour. If you can match the two narratives up, then you’ve cracked your new job. Visit the Titanic Experience and Crumlin Road Gaol. With luck, hard work and a fair wind you will be here long enough to see the crumbling Courthouse opposite the gaol transformed from a symbol of dereliction into one of regeneration and renewal.
4. Visit all 100 peacewalls, not just the International Peace Wall – which isn’t a peacewall. Ask women and men from community programmes, who have been quietly and steadily working away at building peace for decades to show you around the interface areas – another technical term you will want to become familiar with. If you go to Cupar Way, don’t be persuaded to write “Love and Peace” on the artworks with a marker pen – it’s naff.
5. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (there’s another rabbit hole for you) will be your lodestone, and the imminent season of reflection on its 20th anniversary will be useful for you and everyone else caught in the gridlock.
6. Spend time thinking about how to make the role of Secretary of State really matter. That will involve a crash course in understanding the history and profound complexity of British involvement in Ireland North and South. You may have been told or had the impression that the British government is a “neutral” mediator between two “sides”. Poppycock. Any idea that the Secretary of State might be an effective facilitator is seriously compromised by several factors: the legacy of British state and security forces’ involvement in the violence and the overwhelming evidence of collusion between those forces and the loyalist paramilitaries; the current pact between the Tory government and the DUP, which means the DUP cannot be upset or they will bring down the government. Multiple voices are calling for mediation in the current gridlock by a truly experienced, wise, genuinely independent international statesperson. However, if you are tempted to step into that role, you would do worse than take the advice of Senator George Mitchell, who wrote that “For the two years of [the GFA] negotiations, I listened and listened, and then I listened some more.” He found the experience repetitive and frustrating – but in the end, the listening paid off.
7. If the above is not complicated enough, then Brexit adds a further, massive level of complexity.
8. By now you will have realised that the GFA is a process rather than a document, and there is still some way to go to achieving its vision of “reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and the protection and vindication of human rights for all”. Good luck and God speed. But believe that you and the Tory government can choose to make the role of Secretary of State really matter.