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New NI Secretary Brandon Lewis has hard act to follow and in-tray brimming with potential headaches

Jon Tonge


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New Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis leaves 10 Downing Street during the reshuffle

New Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis leaves 10 Downing Street during the reshuffle

AFP via Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

AFP via Getty Images

New Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis leaves 10 Downing Street during the reshuffle

Welcome to Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis. In the last three-and-a-half years there have been five different Secretaries of State. During the Conservatives' near-decade in power the average length of tenure for the Northern Ireland Secretary has been less than 21 months.

That's on a par with the time in post afforded a football manager. Don't sell the house in East Anglia, Brandon.

No doubt the Secretary of State is looking forward to substituting Great Yarmouth for Glengormley. But what does he know about Northern Ireland? Knowledge of the place has never been a pre-requisite, of course. Briefly on Thursday, though, Lewis' Wikipedia page declared him a Larne fan. Who knew? One assumes his first public appearance will be leading the singing in the away end at Dungannon Swifts tonight.

As a former councillor who later became a Local Government Minister, Lewis has always been keen on cutting out waste and inefficiency in elected authorities. Good luck with Stormont, Mr Lewis.

The new Secretary of State has consistently voted against more money for local councils. He has hardly displayed much more enthusiasm for devolution either. With the notable exception of policing, Lewis has tended to oppose devolving further powers to the Welsh Assembly and has opposed any of the devolved administrations having the authority to amend EU law where it has been retained as UK legislation.

Lewis has a big in-tray. The right-wing of the party of which he used to be chairman will be pressing him to stop investigations and prosecutions arising from the conduct of British soldiers during the Troubles. Yet Julian Smith pledged full implementation of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement within 100 days of the New Decade, New Approach relaunch of the Assembly and Executive last month.

The 2014 Agreement offers a balance of information, inquiry and, where there is adequate evidence, prosecutions irrespective of perpetrator. That's a long way from the amnesties effectively desired by some vocal Conservatives.

The new postholder will be under pressure to implement all that was promised when Stormont was resurrected. That means rows about money, arguments on tricky language issues and pressure from Sinn Fein - possibly in government in both jurisdictions on the island - for a border poll. There's also the small matter of Brexit and a Prime Minister either unaware or in denial of the consequences of the deal he has signed with the EU for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Lewis does not even have the luxury afforded most previous office holders that he is at least following failure. Unusually, his predecessor was quite successful in the role. Yet Julian Smith's tenure as Northern Ireland Secretary was the second shortest ever. Only Frances Pym had a briefer spell in charge. His four months in 1973-74 were even more fleeting than the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement over which he briefly presided.

There is a danger of overstating Julian Smith's role. Compared to his hapless predecessor Karen Bradley, he was always going to appear a combination of Kissinger and Einstein. The restoration of Stormont owed far more to a Westminster general election result that offered a clear 'Get back to work' message to the DUP and Sinn Fein than it did the political genius of Smith.

That said, Smith's appointment appeared a good one, back in the days before Dominic Cummings decided the composition of the entire Cabinet. The warm tributes to him on Thursday across the divide and north and south of the border were heartfelt. Smith offered a combination of clarity, firmness, intelligence and interpersonal skills lacking in several earlier incumbents.

Smith was never on the same page as the Prime Minister. For starters, Smith displayed a good knowledge of Northern Ireland. Unlike Boris Johnson, he offered coherent answers to difficult questions of detail. And the sacked minister was fully aware of the potentially destabilising impacts of Brexit. Smith could give speeches that were cleverly crafted but nonetheless thinly veiled in their criticisms of his leader.

He had been on both resignation and sacking-watch, but with the restoration of Stormont it seemed he might be given time to develop what he had helped deliver.

Instead, Brandon Lewis now must handle tricky issues of security (in which the new arrival at least has ministerial experience), strengthening the economy and securing the institutions.

There are plenty of risks it might go badly for Lewis. And if it goes well and he commands respect? He might get six months in the job.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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