Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: It's a bad day out of the office for dithering Secretary of State

By Suzanne Breen

When Karen Bradley was looking at her diary engagements early yesterday she would have reckoned there wasn't much ahead to worry about.

A breakfast organised by the Institute of Directors was the first engagement. The business community are hardly a bolshie bunch so nothing too challenging was expected there. Then it was on to the North West 200 at Portstewart, with the final date of the day at the Balmoral Show.

Except it didn't quite work out that well. Despite the glorious sunshine, a stormy reception awaited Mrs Bradley.

Those at the breakfast don't recall any previous secretary of state getting such a rough a ride over government action - or rather non-action - here. The message was that 16 months on from the Executive's collapse, she must quit dithering and ensure Northern Ireland has the stable government the business community craves.

Public affairs consultant David Kerr, who was at the event, couldn't understand why Mrs Bradley is so opposed to appointing direct rule ministers.

He warned that she may mistakenly hope the business community can successfully apply pressure to Sinn Fein and the DUP to restore the Executive.

It can't, and with little prospect of power-sharing returning this year the Secretary of State needed to take "the situation by the scruff of the neck and appoint ministers to allow government to operate lawfully," Mr Kerr said.

He believed Mrs Bradley had been advised that direct rule was "more dangerous and controversial" than it actually was.

In his experience as a former Ulster Unionist special adviser at Stormont in the first power-sharing administration, direct rule had "worked fine" as a temporary stop-gap until the parties sorted out their differences. But for the moment, keeping Dublin and Sinn Fein content outweighs other considerations for the Government. At the North West 200, and later the Balmoral Show, Mrs Bradley tried to escape difficult questions from the media and Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson with a 'let's just enjoy the day'.

One wag tweeted that Usain Bolt "couldn't run as fast as Karen Bradley". She was even unfavourably compared to James Brokenshire - whoever could have predicted that?

Questions have also been raised over whether she is spending enough time in Northern Ireland. But most of her predecessors have faced the same accusations, and parliamentary arithmetic means MPs must be in Westminster more than ever before to vote. Mrs Bradley also sits on the Cabinet Brexit sub-committee which eats into her time.

Still, the Secretary of State is viewed more as Theresa May's woman in Northern Ireland than an independently-minded figure with her own ideas on the way forward politically.

If she's dithering, it's because her boss is. Yesterday was a bad day out of the office.

Belfast Telegraph

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