Karen Bradley: “I’m not here for the headlines. I’m here to get the best thing for the country”
Karen Bradley has enjoyed a steady rise to the Cabinet since entering parliament in 2010. Trusted by the Prime Minister to take on the Northern Ireland brief in January, the Tory MP has been exposed to some of the region’s “intractable” challenges. Can she help break the deadlock at Stormont? Sebastian Whale travels to Belfast to see if any progress has been made
Karen Bradley and I have something in common; until this year, neither of us had visited Northern Ireland. We are two unlikely people, then, to be congregated at Hillsborough Castle, the 100-acre palace and royal residence whose walls are dripping with references to the region’s history.
Our meeting room is where the Queen greeted Martin McGuinness in 2016. When the Sinn Féin politician asked Her Majesty how she was, she replied: “Well, I’m still alive.” At the base of the garden overlooking a pond is Lady Alice’s Temple, where Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, took stock of developments in the peace negotiations during the late 1990s. The castle also witnessed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and the Hillsborough Agreement on devolution in 2010.
The fact that we find ourselves in such surroundings on a stunning September day speaks to the unpredictable nature of British politics. This time last year, Bradley was Culture Secretary and considering Rupert Murdoch’s proposed takeover of Sky. In January James Brokenshire resigned as Northern Ireland Secretary due to illness. Theresa May asked Bradley to step in.
“I had no idea how wonderful Northern Ireland was,” Bradley confesses. “I was slightly scared of Northern Ireland because of my impression and images from 20 years ago. That is not the place that it is today.”
Bradley could hardly be too grateful for the situation she inherited. The stalemate at Stormont had run for a year following the collapse of the power-sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The vexed issue of the Northern Ireland border dominated the Brexit negotiations. And a highly charged debate over investigations into killings during the Troubles was brewing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But as the people of Northern Ireland enter their 19th month without an assembly, the initial goodwill that was afforded to Bradley is starting to wane.
“Karen has come in with little or no experience of Northern Ireland. So obviously it’s been a steep learning curve for her,” Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, tells me in his North Belfast constituency office.
“She’s come in at a time when we haven’t got devolution and we don’t have direct rule and her approach has been – it’s not her approach alone, it’s been the approach given to her by No10 – basically ‘wait and see and hope for the best’. But I think the time has now run out on that policy.”
So why has the PM placed such trust in Bradley? And can the MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, who covets policy detail over headlines, succeed where others have failed?
Karen Bradley grew up in Buxton, Derbyshire along with her two brothers. They lived above their parent’s pub, which has been in the family for 51 years spanning three generations. Pub work became second nature and instilled a “small business mentality”. During a recent visit to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, a guide tried to instruct her on how to pour the perfect pint. “Oh, you actually know how to do this,” he said.
Bradley was told never to discuss religion, politics or football with patrons – a challenge for the devout Manchester City fan. “Behind the bar, your job is to smile sweetly and serve the customer and don’t get involved in their discussions and arguments. So, it’s a bit odd really that I’ve found myself doing what I do.”
One of her earliest political recollections took place on polling day in 1979. She had entered the kitchen dressed in a red jumper and red kilt from Marks & Spencer before her mum instructed her: “Go back and put your blue on. We’re voting for Margaret Thatcher today.”
Bradley studied mathematics at Imperial College London, becoming the first member of her family to go to university. She went on to work for Deloitte and then KPMG as a tax manager.
September 11, 2001 completely altered the course of her career. Plans for Bradley to run the UK tax desk in KPMG’s New York office were put on ice as the fallout from the terror attack gripped the financial services sector. To go for partnership at the firm, she needed a secondment. Along came an opportunity to work as a technical adviser to the then shadow chancellor, Michael Howard. Here she worked on the Tories’ response to Gordon Brown’s 2003 budget. Her amendment to the subsequent finance bill was accepted by the Labour government. The experience took Bradley aback. “It was like, ‘I’ve changed the law’,” she says. “’I can actually make a difference.’”
It proved contagious. “The fact is that when I went back to KPMG and I had a choice of going for partnership or going into politics, one was definitely more financially rewarding but not as personally rewarding,” she says.
“And while my poor husband, who says he married this accountant who drove a BMW and lived in Chelsea, now he’s got a politician who lives in Staffordshire with a Volvo, a 15-year-old Volvo at that, it’s not quite the same for him financially. But he knows I’m a happier person because I’m doing something I love and something where I can really make a difference to people’s lives.”
Bradley was elected MP for Staffordshire Moorlands in 2010. At the first PMQs of the parliament, she asked David Cameron if he would consider the case of her Albanian constituent who had been wrongly accused of murder and faced extradition to Italy. Theresa May, then Home Secretary, took up the issue and the Italians withdrew the extradition order. “I then helped him to apply for UK citizenship and he and his family are living happily in Leek still,” she says.
This counts as one of Bradley’s two proudest moments as an MP (“I feel like I genuinely made a difference to his life”). The second relates to her work on the Modern Slavery Act as Home Office Minister, which was the last piece of legislation passed by the Coalition government.
The common thread running through these achievements is Theresa May. They seem to be political kindred spirits; two people who prefer the behind-the-scenes aspect of politics than hogging the limelight.
“I think that we’re both ‘get on, do the job, get your head down, get into the policy detail’. My job in the Home Office was a very technical, policy-driven job. It was really quite dry stuff. You can’t just do it superficially,” she says.
“That really involved knuckling down. It’s not about being showy. It’s not about big announcements the whole time. It’s about understanding the detail, so you can deliver a really good piece of work that works for everybody.”
She adds: “If you look at people like Damian Green and James Brokenshire, who also worked with her in the Home Office, we were all politicians that really got into the detail and she appreciates that.”
Is this genre of politician the one that Bradley too admires? “I admire people who are able to get on and get the job done. As I say, I’m not here for the headlines. I’m here to get the best thing for the country.
“I’m here to get the best thing for my constituents… it’s about putting public service above personal gain and personal satisfaction, I suppose.”
The PM has placed great value in politicians cut from Bradley’s cloth; both she and Brokenshire enjoyed promotions to the Cabinet when she entered No10. Close allies like David Lidington, who hold leading positions in her top team, are unlikely to trouble the scorers from a media stand point but are often thought of as being competent and policy-focused.
All told, May knows what she is getting with Bradley; a capable politician who she can trust. A rare and, in these turbulent times, much coveted loyalist.
“It’s a joke,” says my taxi driver. The conversation has inevitably turned to Stormont as he catches wind of why I’m in Belfast. Originating from Holywood in County Down, my driver embodies much of the progress in Northern Ireland. He, a protestant, is married to a catholic. But as we tour the many murals of the city, passing the one of George Best on Blythe Street, he seems concerned by the political climate. “People want to get on with their lives and not go back to the past.”
Sinn Féin collapsed the executive in January 2017 after Arlene Foster, the First Minister, refused to resign over the so-called ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal. A deal seemed within reach in February 2018 to restore power sharing but talks collapsed.
Sinn Féin blames the breakdown on disagreements over an Irish Language Act and on opposing views over same-sex marriage. DUP sources say Sinn Féin are opportunistically trying to take advantage of the Brexit vote to further their cause for a united Ireland.
“Obviously we want to see devolved government in Stormont again,” says Bradley. “I am as frustrated as anybody, perhaps more so. I do lie awake at three o’clock in the morning thinking ‘what can I do now?’ I can’t understand how people who could make a difference don’t do something about it and deal with it, because getting devolved government in Stormont is the only solution for Northern Ireland. There is no alternative.”
So no direct rule from Westminster? “No. I mean if I speak to businesses about their desire to invest in Northern Ireland, they want to invest on the basis of stable devolved government,” she says.
“Direct rule, people think it would be very easy to get into, it’s very difficult to get out of. But it’s not even easy to get into. You’re talking about having to legislate in Westminster to suspend the institutions that are set up under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. That is a major step.
“The idea that we would willingly and openly choose to turn back on what we achieved over 20 years in those institutions is just something that I think people, if they really think about it, they really don’t want to see that happen. They want to see devolved government.
“Whilst there’s a chance of devolved government, whilst I think it can be achieved, I think we need to make that our priority.”
Given that, should we judge Bradley by whether Stormont gets up and running again? “Clearly getting devolved government up is my priority… It is the thing that we need to do.”
While the stalemate rumbles on, Bradley is facing calls to intervene. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds says: “Time has come for her to actually take decisions and bring forward legislation in the House which will actually tackle the current limbo we have in Northern Ireland in terms of governance.”
Does he mean direct rule from Westminster? “We want to see devolution. That’s the main thing. But given the fact that Sinn Féin are boycotting both the assembly, the executive and Westminster and show no signs – before Brexit is sorted out anyway – of wanting to have devolution restored. We can’t continue to have civil servants in this position where they are the ultimate authority.
“She has to now intervene, bring forward legislation which will allow decisions to be made in the interests of everybody in Northern Ireland. This is just stuff to do with health, education, not controversial constitutional issues, but the normal day-to-day things that other parts of the UK would like to see happening.”
After our interview, Bradley signals that she has been listening. She announces that following the court ruling in the Buick case, which found that a Stormont department had no legal power to sanction a new waste incinerator without a minister in place, she will bring forward primary legislation later this year that will “include provisions to give clarity and certainty to enable decisions” to be taken in Northern Ireland and ensure the “continued delivery of public services”. “I intend to consult parties in Northern Ireland over how this might best be done,” she tells MPs. She also outlined plans for a potential independent facilitator who could “play a constructive role in the next round of talks”. MLAs’ salaries, she added, would also be cut by 27.5%.
Bradley explains to me that she wants the parties to “come together” and deal with the “sticking points” over language and other areas in a “separate space” while running schools and hospitals. “You could deal with the more symbolic issues about identity and culture, sustainability of the executive, deal with the issues about the role of minority parties within the executive, all of those things I think should be dealt with separately and get on with government,” she says.
The confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP, secured after last year’s election, has prompted concerns about the UK government’s impartiality in matters Northern Ireland. Both Bradley and Dodds roundly dismiss this claim, with the latter arguing that Sinn Féin are trying to make political capital out of the situation.
But Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion says Bradley and the Conservative government “have no interest in or concern for the people of the north of Ireland”. “The price of the Tory government’s voting pact with the DUP is no assembly, no executive, the denial of rights and a Brexit process that will be devastating for the island of Ireland.”
The spectre of Brexit has dominated mainland debate on Northern Ireland since the referendum. Last weekend David Davis argued that the issue of the border in Northern Ireland has been “overemphasised” in the negotiations. Boris Johnson, his fellow Brexiteer, used a newspaper op-ed to criticise the government’s approach to the issue.
“With all due respect to my colleagues, you cannot possibly understand the issues of Northern Ireland from Westminster. It’s just not possible, you have to be here,” Bradley says. “I think they need to come and meet some of the businesses and people that I speak to and come and see it for themselves.”
The interventions are not going down well in Northern Ireland, she adds. “People feel slightly offended, actually.”
To the surprise of no one, Bradley is signed up to the Chequers proposals set out by the PM. She argues it “deals with the concerns” of the Irish border in a way that works for the UK. The same cannot be said, she continues, for a Canada-style trade deal with the EU, which she claims would lead to a border down the Irish sea. It would also make it harder for businesses to trade with Europe, she says. “The proposition is we move to rest of world customs arrangement for our EU trade. That seems to me to be madness. I didn’t come into politics to impose burdens on business.”
On Chequers, she adds: “Let’s all get behind it and get a good deal for the United Kingdom rather than now trying to come up with different approaches and different proposals that might mean that Brexit simply doesn’t happen. I want to see Brexit happen, my constituents voted for it, the country voted for it. But I want to see it happen in a way that’s a success for the UK.”
Is Bradley, who campaigned for Remain, frustrated by Brexit? She pauses. “That’s an interesting question; does it frustrate me? It frustrates me that people get distracted from all the good work that we’re doing as a government.”
It is not only the Stormont impasse and Brexit that dominates Bradley’s in-tray. The proposed historical investigations unit into the killings during the Troubles has got Tory backbenchers worked up, as they fear the military or police could be targeted disproportionately. There are growing calls for a statute of limitations to prevent the prosecution of former soldiers.
Bradley wants to see a more proportionate system that would look at all the killings where there has not been a conclusion. But she says a statute of limitation is a “bad idea” as it would have to apply to all sides and could mean that prosecutions could not be carried out for terrorists behind atrocities such as the Enniskillen bomb.
Bradley is “absolutely sure” that much of the backlash is a hangover from the controversial IHAT investigations into the Iraq War. “I understand completely. I do not want to see veterans being hounded. They’re being hounded today, and I want to change that,” she adds.
Notwithstanding the major obstacles she faces, Bradley’s immediate task is to host the annual summer party at Hillsborough Castle, which has been the official home of the Northern Ireland Secretary since the 1970s. The place is a hive of activity as staff prepare for the soiree, with 2,000 of Northern Ireland’s finest due in fewer than 24 hours.
In light of the obdurateness of the issues she faces, and given her initial unfamiliarity with the brief, is this Bradley’s biggest challenge of her career?
“I don’t know. There’s been a challenge in everything that I’ve done. There are certainly intractable challenges sometimes it feels in Northern Ireland and there’s a lot to understand about Northern Ireland,” she says.
“As I said earlier, I freely admit that 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.”