Karen Bradley: I did not know people in Northern Ireland voted on constitutional lines
Karen Bradley has admitted she did not know voters in Northern Ireland split along constitutional lines before becoming its Secretary of State.
She also admitted to being "slightly scared" of the Province - which she had never visited before being given the job - because of the footage of sectarian violence she had seen decades ago.
Theresa May moved her close ally to the Northern Ireland Office after James Brokenshire resigned due to illness in January.
Speaking to The House magazine, Ms Bradley said she was surprised by the politics of the region upon her appointment.
“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,” she said.
“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 where in Staffordshire Moorlands I was fighting a Labour-held seat as a Conservative politician and I was trying to put forward why you would want to switch from voting Labour to voting Conservative.
“That is so incredibly different and it’s when you realise that, and you see that, that you can then start to understand some of the things that the politicians say and some of the rhetoric.”
The Tory minister also said her view of Northern Ireland was shaped by the Troubles, but she was pleasantly surprised when she got there.
“I admit, and people criticise me, ‘you’d never come to Northern Ireland before you were appointed to the job’. I had no idea how wonderful Northern Ireland was,” she said.
“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.
“Today it is vibrant, energetic – over 50% of the population are aged 40 or under. It is an exciting place to be.”
Earlier today Ms Bradley announced that members of the legislative assembly in Northern Ireland would have their pay cut from £49,500 to £35,888 and then by a further £6,187 amid an ongoing stalemate at Stormont.
Ms Bradley also announced today that she would legislate to allow civil servants to make decisions in the absence of a power-sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which collapsed in January 2017.
Elsewhere in the interview, Ms Bradley described as a “bad idea” calls to put a statute of limitations on the investigation into killings during The Troubles.
Tory backbenchers and senior military officials have expressed concern that the Historical Investigations Unit probe would lead to former soldiers and police facing prosecution.
Ms Bradley said she wanted to move to a system that would no longer disproportionately target veterans.
But she added that a statute of limitations would have to apply to all sides and could mean that terrorists would not face prosecution for crimes such as the Enniskillen bomb in 1987, which killed 11 people.
“The Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland has said that a statute of limitations would put Northern Ireland back 20 years because you would bring out all of these things,” she said.
“Imagine the situation if we could prove who carried out the Enniskillen bomb but because we had passed a law in parliament that said there was an amnesty or statute of limitation, ‘it happened 20 years ago, therefore, it can’t be prosecuted’.
“Imagine turning around to those victims, turning around to those families and saying we can’t prosecute them because parliament decided that it was too long ago.”
Ms Bradley said she believed much of the backlash to the investigation, which is out for consultation, was a response to the IHAT probe into the Iraq War.
“I’m absolutely sure of it and I understand completely. I do not want to see veterans being hounded. They’re being hounded today, and I want to change that. If it wasn’t for the actions of the military and the RUC, we would never have got to the point where the Good Friday Agreement could ever become a reality,” she said.
Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman said: "This is embarrassing from the Northern Ireland Secretary. Given this worrying lack of basic knowledge about Northern Ireland, its no wonder the Tories don't seem to understand the vital importance of preventing a return of a hard border there."