Brexit gets more complicated as May's Northern Ireland minister quits

Mr James Brokenshire resigned as Northern Ireland Secretary for health reasons on Jan 8.
Mr James Brokenshire resigned as Northern Ireland Secretary for health reasons on Jan 8.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - One of the thorniest questions facing Brexit negotiators - how to handle the United Kingdom's new land border with Ireland - is suddenly looking even more difficult.

The experienced James Brokenshire resigned as Northern Ireland Secretary for health reasons on Monday (Jan 8). His departure is a blow for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who trusted him as a loyal supporter who could work with her key allies in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

Mr Brokenshire played a vital role in resolving the crisis last month that threatened to destroy hopes of a deal on the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.

He stayed up late into the night in Mrs May's private office, trying to persuade DUP leader Arlene Foster not to block a compromise on the Northern Irish border, allowing the negotiations to move on from the divorce issues to discussions of a future trade deal with the EU.

Mr Brokenshire's exit means that Mrs May has now lost the three Cabinet ministers with the greatest knowledge of working with the DUP, whose 10 Members of Parliament are propping up her minority Conservative government. Keeping the DUP onside is vital for Mrs May's hopes of staying in power and securing a Brexit deal. Ms Foster praised Mr Brokenshire's "intimate knowledge" of Northern Ireland.

Last year, the two top Tories who negotiated the alliance with the DUP after Mrs May lost her majority in June's election both left their jobs. Mr Gavin Williamson was promoted from chief whip to Defence Secretary, while Mr Damian Green was fired as first secretary of state over pornography allegations.

Mrs May worked with Mr Brokenshire closely for six years at the Home Office, the UK government department she ran before becoming prime minister in 2016. She paid tribute to his "diligence, determination and good humour", and said she looked forward to working with him again when he is better.

 

"We must continue to secure the positive outcome for Northern Ireland to which we have already made such progress in our Brexit negotiations," Mrs May said.