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Gaffe reveals Karen Bradley's briefing notes designed to keep her 'on message'

Visit: Karen Bradley
Visit: Karen Bradley

By David Young and Steven Alexander

An embarrassing blunder by an official at the NIO has given a unique insight into the Government's thinking on matters affecting Northern Ireland - on everything from Brexit to how the DUP fines its own politicians.

Yesterday, the NIO issued an announcement to the Press regarding a visit by the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley - but included much more than intended.

Read the full briefing notes here: Karen Bradley leaked briefing notes [full text] 

Attached to the notice was a series of briefing notes for the Northern Ireland Secretary on current issues, outlining the Government's position on matters as diverse as abortion, legacy issues, cutting MLAs' pay, a border poll, and the provision of cannabis oil for epileptic Co Tyrone boy Billy Caldwell.

A spokesperson at the NIO blamed "human error" for the email being sent to the Press.

One section advises the Secretary of State on what to say if asked about relaxing the laws on abortion here, via the repeal of parts of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

"We have no plans to amend the law on abortion in either England and Wales or Northern Ireland," Mrs Bradley is advised to say. "This is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and ultimately this is an issue for a restored Assembly to consider, where the decision can be taken by locally elected, locally accountable politicians."

However, if the NI Secretary is "pressed", she is urged to say that "repealing those sections do not solve the issue, and without any new provisions, offer no safeguards for women. It is not appropriate to leave a gap in the law. A new legal framework would be needed to replace those provisions, which is rightly a matter for locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland to decide its policy on".

On calls for a border poll, Mrs Bradley is advised to say that "we continue to believe that a majority in Northern Ireland are committed to the Union, and therefore the tests for a border poll have not been met".

"On this basis, UKG (UK Government) has no plans to hold a border poll."

Ms Bradley is advised to invoke Irish premier Leo Varadkar in order to fend off questions about any potential referendum on Irish unity. "As the Taoiseach himself acknowledged, continued discussion about a border poll at this time is unhelpful and unnecessary."

The Secretary of State has been accused of dithering over making cuts to MLAs' pay in a bid to inject fresh momentum into the stalled talks to restore Stormont. But it appears that there is no movement here.

The stock answer remains: "The Secretary of State has made clear that she is minded to reduce MLA pay in line with the recommendations of (former Assembly chief executive) Trevor Reaney. This remains her position."

The briefing notes point out that the Home Office is taking the lead on why it confiscated - and then returned - cannabis oil to Castlederg boy Billy Caldwell, who relies on the drug to prevent life-threatening seizures.

The lines provided to Mrs Bradley are: "Any parent will want to do whatever they can to alleviate the symptoms of their child when suffering from a debilitating illness.

"Nevertheless, it is important that medicines are thoroughly tested to ensure they meet rigorous standards so that doctors and patients are assured of their efficacy, quality and safety."

Recently, it was revealed that the DUP fines its politicians who talk to the media without permission. If asked about this, Mrs Bradley is advised that "this is unlikely to be something that you will wish to comment on beyond noting that it is a matter for the DUP" - whose MPs' votes prop up her party's Government.

Despite stressing the need to restore Stormont, the document reveals no fresh thinking on how this will be done, revealing a series of lines that have been repeated endlessly in recent months.

These include:

"I continue to keep available a range of options for supporting the process and encouraging the parties to achieve the positive outcome we all deeply want.

"I continue to keep under review my statutory obligation to call an Assembly election."

On the Brexit 'backstop', the NI Secretary is advised to say: "The UK's proposal on the customs elements of a temporary backstop is that a Temporary Customs Arrangement should exist between the UK and the EU.

"This will ensure that if a customs arrangement with the EU is not in place by the end of the Implementation Period there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are clear this would only be used in very specific circumstances and that it will be strictly time-limited. It is not our preferred option."

There has been much debate over a statute of limitations for soldiers accused of offences during the Troubles. Mrs Bradley is advised, however, to say that any such amnesty "would need to apply to all those involved in Troubles-related incidents, including former terrorists, if the UK is to comply with international law".

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