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James Brokenshire determined to protect Northern Ireland's interests post-Brexit

Northern Ireland's new secretary of state James Brokenshire  has said it is vital the region's interests are fully protected after Brexit.

Remainer James Brokenshire has replaced Brexiteer Theresa Villiers, who quit front bench politics after declining Theresa May's offer of another Government position.

As a vocal Leave advocate, Ms Villiers had faced calls to quit as Northern Ireland secretary following the EU referendum, with Sinn Fein among critics who claimed her position was untenable, given that 56% of the region had backed Remain.

The fall-out created by the referendum will top the agenda for the 48-year-old former Home Office minister as he takes the reins at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Concerns about the status of the Irish border after Brexit, and whether free movement of people and goods will be impacted, have dominated the political discourse across the island since the UK's historic vote to leave the EU.

Mr Brokenshire said it was a "huge challenge to ensure that we make a success of the UK's decision to leave the European Union".

He added: "It is vital that Northern Ireland's interests are fully protected and advanced including in relation to the border."

Ms Villiers had expressed a desire to continue in the post, highlighting that she was on the same side of the EU argument as Democratic Unionist Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster.

Old Bexley and Sidcup MP Mr Brokenshire, a married father-of-three, arrives at the NIO after six years at the Home Office, where he held a number of posts, including immigration minister.

He supported Mrs May's bid to become Tory leader while his predecessor backed Andrea Leadsom.

During her years in Belfast, Ms Villiers played a key role in negotiating two political deals, the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement.

Both accords helped keep the power-sharing executive afloat when at times there was a very real threat of collapse.

Another big issue in the in-tray of Mr Brokenshire will be attempting to find a resolution to a thorny political impasse that has prevented the establishment of new mechanisms for dealing with the toxic legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Mr Brokenshire said it was a "great honour" to be asked to be Northern Ireland Secretary.

"I am delighted with my appointment," he said.

"I want to pay the fullest tribute to my predecessor, Theresa Villiers, who worked tirelessly for the people of Northern Ireland. As a result of her success in negotiating the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, Northern Ireland is stronger and politics more stable than for many years.

"The Prime Minister said in her statement yesterday, there is a 'precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland'. I know from my previous visits to Northern Ireland that it is a very special and valued part of our United Kingdom and which has so much potential as a place to invest and do business.

"A key priority for me is to continue with the full implementation of the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, to help tackle paramilitarism, put the executive's finances on a secure footing and address the legacy of the past. I also want to maintain the Government's full support for the Belfast Agreement."

He added: "I am looking forward to working closely over the coming weeks and months with the Executive, the Irish Government and the whole community in Northern Ireland to build a brighter, more secure future for everyone."

DUP leader Mrs Foster congratulated the new incumbent at Stormont House.

"Looking forward to working with you," she tweeted.

The Irish Republic's minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan said: "I warmly congratulate James Brokenshire on his appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and hope to have the opportunity of an early meeting with him."

Ms Villiers said she left the post with the belief the region is more stable than it has been for years.

The Chipping Barnet MP said new Prime Minister Theresa May offered her a role in the Government, but it was not one she felt she could accept.

The former transport minister, who spent four years in the Northern Ireland Office, said she was confident further political progress would be made at Stormont to solidify the peace.

"I am sad to bring to an end my work in Northern Ireland but I believe that I leave the political situation there in a more stable position than it has been for many years, not least because I was able to help tackle the crisis which a year ago left us on the brink of a collapse of devolution and a return to direct rule," she said.

Ms Villiers' exit was met by contrasting reactions from Stormont's two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mrs Foster tweeted: "I enjoyed working with her & wish her all the best for the future."

Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson struck a very different tone.

"Theresa Villiers will be no loss - all British Secretary of States should stay over there," she tweeted.


First Minister Arlene Foster: "Congratulations to James Brokenshire on your appointment as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Looking forward to working with you."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt MLA said: "I congratulate James Brokenshire MP on his appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and look forward to working with him in the weeks and months ahead.

"We hope to see James actively engage with the Official Opposition as well as the Northern Ireland Executive. I also wish Theresa Villiers well for the future."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood: "The most important issue the SDLP is working on is the campaign to protect Northern Ireland's position in the European Union. In a welcome contrast to his predecessor, Mr Brokenshire was a Remainer, knew the benefits of staying in the EU and the consequences of leaving.

"In his role as secretary of state he must act in the best interests of people of Northern Ireland, and I urge him to listen to his original instincts and ensure the democratic will here is upheld."

Alliance leader David Ford: "I congratulate Mr Brokenshire on his appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, having worked closely with him during my time as minister of justice

"I trust his experience during that period will help him bring a balanced view to the role of secretary of state. Part of that role will be to recognise the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU and to start work immediately on the particular circumstances of that.

"That will involve fighting for Northern Ireland in any Brexit negotiations, by articulating he will be an active advocate of the interests of Northern Ireland, both within the cabinet and within EU discussions."

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan: "The Good Friday Agreement remains the foundation stone for relations on this island. Under the Agreement, the Irish and British Governments have key responsibilities for upholding its principles and supporting its institutions.

"I look forward to working closely with Mr Brokenshire in discharging these responsibilities in the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland.

"That work assumes even greater importance in the context of the challenges arising from the decision that the UK should exit from the European Union."

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