Karen Bradley has faced robust questions in a Northern Ireland housing estate as local women voiced anger and frustration about Brexit and the Stormont impasse.
The Northern Ireland Secretary’s visit to an art class for women’s groups in the loyalist Old Warren estate in Lisburn developed into an intense political grilling on Thursday as she was challenged on the mounting problems facing communities across the region.
Mrs Bradley was forced to defend the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejecting claims from some of the women present that Northern Ireland was set to be treated differently than the rest of the UK.
But while Brexit was the early focus of the exchanges at the Resurgam Trust centre, questions soon shifted to the two-year powersharing crisis, with Mrs Bradley’s government accused of not doing enough to get MLAs back to work.
Stormont has been without a functioning devolved executive since January 2017 when it imploded amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
All subsequent political efforts to revive the institutions have failed as public services have been left in a limbo land between devolution and direct rule.
Mother-of-four Emma Cairns told Mrs Bradley the situation was “ridiculous”.
“Our schools and our education – it all has to continue to suffer,” she said.
Another woman told Mrs Bradley that schools in the area had run out of toilet roll due to budget cuts.
The Conservative MP replied: “That’s why I want the politicians to do the right thing, I want them to do the right thing by the people who elected them.”
Ms Cairns responded: “It’s ridiculous.
“They have been given more than ample opportunity to do the right thing and they are not.
“And who else do we go to because we are just played this constant drab of ‘yes, we have given them a chance and we can extend it (talks deadlines) and we’re doing this and we’re doing that and nothing is showing, nothing is being done, we’re not feeling it here.”
Afterwards nurse Stacey McCormick said there was a lot of frustration in the room.
“It started off quite calm and relaxed but towards the end it got really frustrating people started to get angry because obviously they were getting things off their chests and getting to be able to vent things,” she said.
“If it had gone on another few minutes it might have got a lot worse.”
She added: “We don’t have anybody that wants to listen to us. Politicians don’t care, they don’t want to know. They only want you when it comes to voting time.
“The health care system is falling apart.
“The waiting lists have just tripled and it’s going to get worse because nurses are leaving the healthcare system because they don’t feel welcome with Brexit coming up, it’s going to get worse”.
Heather Cairns, who asked Mrs Bradley during the visit how long she was going to wait to introduce direct rule, said she hoped the visit had genuine motives.
“I hope it isn’t a PR thing, because in the news with Theresa May and Northern Ireland is at the forefront of all this (Brexit) and I am hoping it isn’t ‘let’s just focus on it for five minutes and then just go away, I hope she genuinely is listening”
Afterwards Mrs Bradley said she welcomed hearing the views.
“What’s really interesting to me is the thing that exercises people the most is a lack of devolved government in Stormont and wanting to see those politicians back at the top of the hill doing what they were elected to do,” she said.
“Of course I understand their frustration, I am frustrated too.
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve better, they deserve their politicians doing the right thing.
“It was really interesting to hear the views that I heard round the table on ‘just get in and run those schools and hospitals, just do the right thing by the people who elected you’.”