N. Ireland Politics

James Brokenshire: Handshakes and smiles as tourists meet 'nice man in a suit'

James Brokenshire and John McNulty
Image caption Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire met tour guide John McNulty and a host of tourists in Londonderry

"He seems like a nice man, but what exactly does he do?"

That was the question I was asked about the new Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire by an American tourist outside the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in Londonderry

She was confused after this man in a suit appeared in front of their group on the city's historic walls.

Mr Brokenshire had been spotted by their guide and was called over to meet the visitors.

He too was a visitor, making his first official trip to Derry.

But you wouldn't have known it from the brief speech he gave about the beauty of Northern Ireland.

He was on a selling mission.

For the city's civic leaders standing watching, the new secretary of state had passed his first test - he was warm, friendly and knew exactly what to say.

Detached

That set the tone for the rest of Mr Brokenshire's engagements in Derry, and it set him apart from his predecessor Teresa Villiers, who at times was accused of being detached.

In between a tour of the Seagate factory and lunch with business leaders to talk about his two favourite subjects, Brexit and the border, Mr Brokenshire had his first official meeting with a victim of the Troubles.

Tony Brown's nephew Paul Whitters was killed 35 years ago in Derry after being shot in the head with a plastic bullet fired by a policeman.

Mr Brown met Mr Brokenshire as part of a delegation from the Pat Finucane Centre, a campaign group for families who lost loved ones in the Troubles.

The group is frustrated by the lack of progress in dealing with the legacy of the past and want Mr Brokenshire to break the political deadlock that has stalled the process.

"He didn't make any promises but it was a constructive engagement," Mr Brown said after their 40-minute meeting.

Honeymoon

He added that said he was impressed by Mr Brokenshire's manner: "He is the most personable secretary of state since Mo Mowlam."

But as another voice in the company was quick to point out, the MP is still in the honeymoon period and the jury hasn't even been sworn in, never mind coming close to passing a verdict on the Northern Ireland secretary.

Beyond the smiles and the handshakes, Mr Brokenshire wasn't giving too much away during his visit.

He was, as his press officer pointed out, in listening mode.

But that will soon have to change, and by the time the American visitors finish their month-long trip around Europe, Mr Brokenshire will be called upon to take some action.

Deciding how Northern Ireland will figure in the UK's Brexit plan will be high on the agenda.

Challenging

How will it impact on the relationship at the heart of Stormont?

What will become of the Irish border that he could just about see from Derry's walls?

And what about the many other unresolved problems sitting in Mr Brokenshire's in-tray?

And did I forget to mention dealing with the legacy of the past?

It's going to be a challenging time for the man who loves nothing better than hill walking in the Highlands of Scotland.

Best put those climbing boots to one side for now.

As for the question from the American visitor, what does the nice man in the suit actually do?

"Come back to me next summer and I may know then," was my response.

More on this story