Who is the new Northern Ireland Secretary and what can we expect from him?

Brexit will be one of the most pressing concerns for James Brokenshire in the months and years ahead...

James Brokenshire, who has been appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, leaves 10 Downing Street, London. Image: Andrew Matthews / PA Wire/Press Association Images

James Brokenshire, who has been appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, leaves 10 Downing Street, London. Image: Andrew Matthews / PA Wire/Press Association Images

As the new British prime minister Theresa May put together her new cabinet this week, there were some very high profile surprises - not least Boris Johnson becoming the new foreign secretary.

For people on this island, however, the most notable change was the appointment of a new Northern Ireland Secretary - James Brokenshire.

It came after Theresa Villiers resigned from the role she had held for four years. 

Mrs Villiers said that the "new Prime Minister was kind enough to offer me a role but it was not one which I felt I could take on". 

The Derry Journal suggests the "vast majority of people in the North had never heard of James Brokenshire" before yesterday's announcement.

So who exactly is he, and what kind of challenges does he face in his new office?

Who is he?

Mr Brokenshire was born in 1968 in Southend-on-Sea, a seaside town around 65km east of London.

He studied law in university, and worked in an international law firm in London for 13 years before becoming an MP.

His website states he specialised in "company law, corporate finance, takeovers and flotations on the London Stock Exchange".

He was first elected as a member of parliament in 2006 for the Hornchurch constituency in the greater London region.

His constituency was dissolved in 2010, and he was instead chosen as a Conservative candidate for Old Bexley & Sidcup. 

He topped the constituency poll in both 2010 and 2015 - winning more than 50% of the vote in the two ballots.

He has served a number of roles during his time in parliament.

After the Conservatives entered government in 2010, Mr Brokenshire was initially appointed parliamentary under secretary for crime reduction.

A year later, he became the under secretary for crime and security. 

In 2014, his role was expanded and he became the minister for security and immigration.

During his time in junior offices, he oversaw the winding-up of the forensic science service which was costing the British government millions of pounds every year.

His website cites the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Act and overseeing the security operation for the London Olympics as some of his key achievements.

He backed a 'Remain' vote in the EU referendum, as well as Theresa May's leadership bid.

What can we expect?

Even since devolution, the role of the Northern Ireland Secretary has diminished, with more control now in the hands of the power-sharing executive.

Mr Brokenshire describes the role as "ensuring the smooth operation of the devolution settlement and promoting Northern Ireland as a place in which to invest and do business."

Although the Northern Ireland Office may not be considered one of the most 'senior' ministerial positions in the British cabinet, the new secretary does face a few more challenges than his predecessor did.

The elephant in the room is, of course, Brexit. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, putting it at odds with the rest of the UK.

The land border with the Republic will surely be one of the most significant practical challenges during the process of leaving the EU.

Mr Brokenshire has already said a few reassuring words on the subject of the border.

"It is vital that Northern Ireland’s interests are fully protected and advanced including in relation to the border," he said in his first statement.

"I am looking forward to working closely over the coming weeks and months with the Executive, the Irish Government and the whole community in Northern Ireland to build a brighter, more secure future for everyone," he added.

He explained: "A key priority for me is to continue with the full implementation of the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, to help tackle paramilitarism, put the Executive’s finances on a secure footing and address the legacy of the past.

He also expressed a commitment to maintaining the UK government’s full support for the Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland politicians have been responding to the appointment.

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood urged Mr Brokenshire to approach the significant challenges "openly and with a listening ear."

He added: "In a welcome contrast to his predecessor, Mr Brokenshire was a Remainer, knew the benefits of staying in the EU and the consequences of leaving. In his role as Secretary of State he must act in the best interests of people of Northern Ireland, and I urge him to listen to his original instincts and ensure the democratic will here is upheld."

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams sounded a more cautious note, stating: “The new British Secretary of State James Brokenshire voted in May for the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. The Conservative Party is committed to this position and the new British Prime Minister has made clear her dislike of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"This must a matter of serious concern for all citizens who support the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and for the Irish Government," he added.

First Minister Arlene Foster, meanwhile, said she was looking forward to working with Mr Brokenshire:

One thing is for sure: leaving the EU will be a defining concern for Theresa May's new government, and there is no doubt James Brokenshire will have some role to play in the surely difficult process ahead.