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Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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