In a stunning admission of personal ignorance, Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley admitted in an interview that she lacked even a basic understanding of the province’s politics before her appointment in January 2018.
Karen Bradley: “I didn’t understand”
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” she said.
A cabinet member discussing what they have learned since taking office is not uncommon in British politics, where ministers are frequently shuffled from department to department in regular “cabinet reshuffles.” But Karen Bradley’s lack of understanding was not limited to the finer details of Northern Irish politics. She appears not to have understood some basic facts that any casual watcher of the evening news in the last twenty years should have picked up.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa,” she continued.
“So, the parties fight for the election within their own community. Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”
As a member of Theresa May’s minority Conservative government, which relies on a “confidence and supply” agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party for survival, Karen Bradley’s position is quite literally determined by the Norther Irish political landscape. It seems odd that she never bothered to learn one of the most fundamental facts about her government’s partner party.
At 48 years old, Bradley is also old enough to have lived through some of the worst years of the “troubles,” when Northern Irish politics dominated UK news coverage for weeks at a time. How she could fail to have noticed one of the most basic facts in politics either before or during her time as a British politician is a mystery.
Karen Bradley confirms the worst
Unsurprisingly, the people of Northern Ireland have reacted badly to Karen Bradley’s admission.
Separated by the Irish Sea from the rest of the country, Unionists and Nationalists alike have long asserted that their relatively small part of the United Kingdom is largely ignored by the political-elite in London. Bradley’s interview has only further confirmed this view.
Quoted in the Guardian, the Nationalist and former Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said, “We have gone beyond being shocked by the British government’s ignorance of affairs here and their disregard for the rights of people here.”
With the Northern Ireland Assembly currently suspended following the main parties’ inability to form an executive in January 2017, the role of the Northern Irish Secretary could prove very important. If the UK government decided to reimpose direct rule of the province, Karen Bradley would become in effect the ruler of the nation she is so openly ignorant of.
So far, Bradley appears to be safe from being sacked by Theresa May. This is partly because, despite the impasse at Stormont, there is no appetite in Westminster for reimposing direct rule.
And perhaps more importantly, having forged a close relationship with May during her time as a minister in the Home Office, Bradley is one of the few members of the cabinet with any personal loyalty to the Prime Minister. If there is another cabinet reshuffle during May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street, Bradley will almost certainly find herself still on the cabinet whatever happens.