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Brighton and Hove Liberal Democrats

Westminster Bubble leaves Northern Ireland facing Summer of Discontent

July 10, 2017 9:18 AM
By Carrie Hynds, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hove

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire finally admitted last week - after the fifth missed deadline - that there's a state of deadlock and paralysis in the talks to restore a Northern Irish executive at Stormont.

A summer of stagnation is terrible news for Northern Ireland, particularly against the backdrop of continued uncertainty over the UK/EU border and with the onset of marching season. The additional £1bn of funding for Northern Ireland secured by the Tory-DUP arrangement is utterly meaningless without Stormont setting a budget. Northern Ireland is currently being run on a 75% budget by its civil service, with health and social care services barely functioning.

I am absolutely furious with the lack of political leadership shown by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire. I was born in Belfast and grew up in Northern Ireland, so I'm driven by personal passion as much as a political desire to see citizens in every part of the UK being properly represented by functioning government.

The Irish News ran an opinion piece on Friday in which Alex Kane gives a thorough and damning assessment of Brokenshire's performance in his ministerial role. I agree with Kane, although he only touches upon the reason why our political system has left Northern Ireland with such an ill-fitting Secretary of State, and this is worth expanding.

Part of the blame lies in Westminster culture: the Prime Minister appoints ministers largely for personal reasons rather than due to particular specialist knowledge, interest or expertise. So we've had a succession of Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who have known very little about the place and have zero incentive to learn. Most of them have their eye on a different Cabinet post and are awaiting the next reshuffle.

As long as the Prime Minister can move MPs from post to post on a whim, we're stuck with this problem in every department. We need to change the political culture: ministers of State should have a background in, or at the very least care about, the area of government they've been appointed to look after. Party leaders should consider the full talent of Parliament when making appointments to the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet: there's no rule to say they must be from the Prime Minister's own party. It's only the Westminster bubble that prevents us from having Norman Lamb as Health Secretary, or Caroline Lucas as Environment Secretary.

In Northern Ireland, the bonfires will be lit on Tuesday night ahead of the biggest parade day of the year on 12th July, when the Orange Order march in celebration of the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It is always a tense couple of days, as during the 11th Night the Irish flag is often burned and throughout the 12th the drumbeats sound intimidating to those "on the other side of the community".

Peace in Northern Ireland is a fragile thing, and it is very much at risk. My fear is that with local politics ground to a halt, and with their sense of pride bolstered by the DUP's windfall, the Orange Order may ignore instructions on Wednesday not to march along certain predominantly-Catholic streets in Belfast. There are usually isolated cases of stone-throwing and shoving along the end points of the marches, which are always policed, but we could see a real step up in aggression.

If that happens, we should all remember the political context behind the civil unrest. A shift in Westminster culture towards appointing ministers for their knowledge, skill and talents - including a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who truly understands what's at stake - would lead to a more peaceful, prosperous country for all of us.