By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a new Northern Ireland minister on Monday after James Brokenshire resigned due to ill health, posing a new challenge in efforts to resolve a political crisis in the British province.
The change in personnel, which formed part of a wider cabinet reshuffle by May, could complicate moves to restart talks in the coming weeks to avoid a return to direct rule from London for the first time in a decade.
Karen Bradley, 47, was given the job, moving from her role as head of the government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where she is best known for adopting a tough stance over Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy all of broadcaster Sky.
Northern Ireland has been without a regional government for almost a year, destabilising the delicate balance between Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists that has been shaken by Britain's June 2016 vote to leave the European Union.
Brokenshire, who had been responsible for the province since July 2016, is to step down ahead of surgery following the discovery of a small lesion on his right lung.
In a letter to May, Brokenshire said he would not be able to give the "complete focus" required to resolve the crisis.
In November, Brokenshire was forced to begin setting a budget for the province, but he said a return to direct rule could still be avoided.
Talks between Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party had been expected to resume in the coming weeks.
Brokenshire was criticised for continually resetting deadlines in talks to restore the region's power-sharing government.
Despite studious efforts by Brokenshire to be seen as an honest broker, some of the parties said a deal by the DUP last year to prop up May's government made this impossible.
A reversion to direct rule could further strain relations with Ireland, which have deteriorated drastically in the past 12 months.
Last year, Bradley overruled the advice of regulator Ofcom and pushed for the firmest possible scrutiny of the proposed Sky deal. Her as-yet unnamed successor will have to handle the preliminary findings of a review by the competition regulator, expected this month. (Writing by Conor Humphries and William James,; Editing by Mark Heinrich)