Among the ministerial offices of the United Kingdom, the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is generally viewed as one of the worse government roles that any politician can be asked to fulfil. Since the 1970s a long succession of men and women have taken on the job, effectively serving as the de facto governor of the UK’s legacy colony on the island of Ireland (a disputed territory formerly barricaded into the north-eastern corner of the country but now marked by an open and all-but invisible frontier).
With a handful of notable exceptions, including Peter Brooke, Mo Mowlam and Peter Hain, the vast majority of ministers from Britain have loathed the task, equating it with political, or during the era of the Troubles, actual death. So much so, in fact, that the threat of being appointed the administrative chief of the war-torn region became the butt of endless lampooning in British television satires of the 1980s and ’90s, featuring in comedies like the BBC’s high-brow Yes, Minister or ITV’s more ribald The New Statesman. During the same period, the government’s Northern Ireland Office in Belfast came to be spoken of in London the same way people in Washington spoke of the American embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Nearly two decades into the Irish-British peace process, it seems that the UK tradition of appointing politicians to the role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who are completely ignorant of the occupied territory and its inhabitants continues unbroken. From Politics Home, a prestigious parliamentary magazine in London, an interview with Karen Bradley, the ruling Conservative Party’s relatively new viceroy for the Six County colony:
…when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.
I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa. So, the parties fight for the election within their own community. Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.
And this is the British minister who will decide whether or not a future, peace treaty-required referendum on Irish reunification is held in the north-east of the country? Please, someone stick her on the last helicopter out of Belfast.