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New man James Brokenshire has chance to make a difference

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 15/07/2016

James Brokenshire leaves after meeting Prime Minister Theresa May where he was appointed the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at Downing Street on July 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
James Brokenshire leaves after meeting Prime Minister Theresa May where he was appointed the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at Downing Street on July 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The appointment of James Brokenshire as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland brought echoes of the puzzled "Humphrey who?" comments which were made when Humphrey Atkins was sent here in 1979 to fill the same position.

For little is known about Mr Brokenshire apart from the fact that he is close to the new Prime Minister and that he was in the Remain camp during the EU referendum.

Indeed, it could be said that he evidently knows more about us than we do about him, if his initial comments are anything to go by.

He neatly encapsulated the big issues facing him - the legacy of the past, implementation of the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements, putting the economy on a sound footing and tackling paramilitarism.

While the role of Secretary of State has diminished somewhat since devolution, that is still a challenging in-tray and Mr Brokenshire will have little time to get up to speed with his brief as the local parties will be keen to test his mettle.

However, his appointment could turn out to be a shrewd move by Theresa May. It is important that Northern Ireland does have the ear of the Prime Minister during the vital Brexit negotiations as the region is particularly vulnerable. It is also encouraging that he intends to work with the Irish Government in ensuring that the province's interests are borne in mind, especially in relation to the border.

And having voted to stay in the EU, Mr Brokenshire will be more attuned to the majority feeling in Northern Ireland than his predecessor - even if Brexit is now inevitable - although it may create an interesting dynamic between him and First Minister Arlene Foster, who is anti-EU.

One of Mr Brokenshire's most delicate tasks will be trying to maintain a balance that does not alienate either community yet sets out firmly his Government's position on any issue.

It is because of their competing ideologies that the two major parties have kicked some of the most contentious issues into the long grass, but they cannot be allowed to remain there and perhaps Mr Brokenshire will bring a new impetus to finding ways to resolve them.

We await the new Secretary of State making himself better known to people here and hope that his delight in coming here - something that was not always apparent with his predecessor - is maintained in the long-term.

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