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Dear Secretary of State

31st July 2019
This article first appeared in the Irish News on Tuesday 30 July 

So last week we got a new Secretary of State. The leaders of all our main political parties wrote to Julian Smith on a worthy and important issue, though unfortunately they called him Simon for some reason. Just so he doesn’t feel too bad about the mistaken identity I have penned my own letter to the new man at the helm at the NIO. 

Dear Julian 

Welcome to Northern Ireland, you will have the best wishes of people here as you set about your important tasks, even if most of us are blessed with a cynicism about UK politics and the intentions of the Government of which you are part, but more of that later. You do have two things in your immediate favour; firstly that you are replacing the most hapless Secretary of State we have had in Karen Bradley who oddly said at the dispatch box just a month ago that she would be in the job for years to come, even when we all knew she was in her final days. Secondly for a while we thought Michael Gove was on his way here and while you Julian are untested and unproven in your new role, you are not Michael Gove, and thats a good start. 

Some of the political parties have voiced concern that your previous close dealings with the DUP, and the Government’s ongoing partnership arrangement with Arlene Foster’s party will lead to a bias in your dealings. To be fair you have already stated you will act on behalf of all who live here and will work for all of the political parties who represent the people of Northern Ireland. That is extremely important because put simply the DUP, while they are virtually the only Northern Ireland voice in Westminster, do not represent the views of the majority of people who live here. We voted to Remain. We would do so again, as demonstrated in opinion poll after opinion poll and even more importantly demonstrated at the ballot box in the European election a few short weeks ago. We don’t want a No Deal Brexit, we don’t want a hard Brexit, and while most of us want no part of Brexit, we would have settled for the Withdrawal Agreement which your party has rejected. 

You are now part of a Cabinet apparently dedicated to the pursuit of a No Deal Brexit over any other resolution. As you go about your business locally you will realise that if you are to represent our views and interests the two positions just don’t go together. I don’t even need to rehearse the statistics and research which shows that this region will suffer more than any other in the event of No Deal. Our Civil Service has drawn that conclusion, every business and agricultural organisation has done so as well. Your boss though simply does not care about that so even if you do speak up genuinely on our behalf your voice will be drowned out by the empty rhetoric of Johnson and co. 

So how best should you invest your time and energy? We are without our own Government now for well over two years. Yet at times it seems we have a genuine talks process underway and in interviews with the BBC last weekend Jeffrey Donaldson and Conor Murphy, representing the DUP and Sinn Fein seemed almost on the verge of agreement. So it is vital that you use your skills of persuasion and negotiation to move the big two parties towards agreement as quickly as possible. At the same time do not make the mistake of excluding the other parties - a two party talks process will lead to a two party Executive. That didn’t work last time and is unlikely to again. 

There is a general apathy around politics, the electorate has been switched off by the series of scandals which culminated in the RHI initiative. So a return to the old Stormont won’t do, we need  a greater transparency, inclusivity and better connectivity between the political system and the general public. I’ll leave that one with you. 

Build a solid relationship with Simon Coveney, he is a committed politician and as far as I can tell is absolutely committed to getting things right in Northern Ireland. Ignore the predictable and juvenile name calling from politicians old enough to know better. 

We desperately, desperately need balanced investment in our infrastructure across the region. Push the City Deal plans for greater Belfast and the North West, show people and businesses that politics can indeed deliver. Fight for extra resources for our hospitals and schools, find a way to get the money allocated and spent. 

Politics here needs a shake up, something different. How about an early decision on the historic institutional abuse compensation, on which the party leaders wrote to you? Why not rock up to the Feile over the next two weeks and take part in one of the political debates? You will be made very welcome. Get people talking and listen to what they are saying. 

Who knows how long your spell as Secretary of State will last, indeed who knows how long this Government will last? But as long as you are here, have an impact, get out and about, speak to the media. Not long ago we had political giants in your role, I am thinking of Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandleson, John Reid…..but you are following the three most anonymous and ineffective ever to occupy your current office. It’s time to break that sequence. 

Good luck

Brendan Mulgrew
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