James Brokenshire made slight impression on Northern Ireland while secretary of state for 18 months, until leaving the role for surgery for lung cancer at the beginning of this year. While he departed with good wishes for his full recovery, there was little affection for him.
When Mr Brokenshire arrived in July 2016, relations between the two major parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – were bad. By the time he left, they were worse. He appeared either unable or unwilling to do much to repair the damage caused both by a scandal involving the vast, unplanned, cost of a renewable heating scheme, and the deep-seated mistrust and animosity between the two parties. The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed six months after Mr Brokenshire became secretary of state.
Many observers believed that only a strong broker could bring the parties back into government. But Brokenshire never seemed a dominant personality, nor a trusted intermediary. In fairness, his capacity to be seen as an impartial go-between was destroyed when the general election of June 2017 led to his government’s reliance on the votes of the DUP.
“I suppose he was effectively ineffective, which is perhaps what he was supposed to be,” Mark Durkan, a former deputy first minister and former SDLP MP for Foyle told LGC. “He was not particularly active or assertive. He was observing the devolved space and maybe careful not to encroach on that, or confuse his position with the Northern Ireland Civil Service. He was not seen as trying to steer anything.
“When he was here he was looking as if he was looking for the exit. He seemed happy to be secretary of state, but not secretary of state for Northern Ireland.”
The strong perception in Northern Ireland is that Brokenshire was appointed because he ticked all the boxes that Theresa May was concerned about. He had worked for Ms May in the Home Office, was competent and avoided mistakes and controversy. This is an almost identical CV to that of his successor, the current secretary of state, Karen Bradley. The difficulty is that what Northern Ireland needs is arguably the exact opposite – a confident, outgoing, determined, risk taker, who just might bring difficult people back to the negotiations and demand a solution. More a Mo Mowlam than a James Brokenshire.
In which case, what does this augur for local government? Nothing in Brokenshire’s career to date indicates a willingness to bang the table, or to provide creative solutions to difficult challenges. When it comes to allocating resources to councils, some will inevitably fear that based on his dealings with the DUP he might favour Conservative shires, over Labour cities. Ironically, he will also have responsibility for proposed city deals in Northern Ireland for Belfast and Derry – where he is likely to say that nothing will be offered until the parties go back into government. Which means continued stalemate.
One of the other challenges facing Brokenshire will be what to do about social housing and whether councils will be permitted to block development proposals. Perhaps the new housing and communities secretary will release his inner self, tell councils to stand up to the nimbies and demand they build the homes needed. But it seems unlikely. Past experience suggests he will instead hold meetings, where participants will be expected to come up with their own solutions.
No one seems to particularly dislike James Brokenshire. But, to my mind, few people have risen so high up the greasy pole of government without making their mark. The role of housing, communities and local government secretary will surely make or break his career.
Paul Gosling, Northern Ireland-based political analyst