Secretary of state declines to reimpose direct rule

Posted By: February 22, 2018

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, February 21, 2018               

SECRETARY of State Karen Bradley has declined to reimpose direct rule but pledged to provide a Stormont budget in the coming weeks.

The Tory MP yesterday fended off calls from the DUP to appoint British ministers and also did not rule out another Stormont election.

Mrs. Bradley was updating the House of Commons yesterday after the collapse of the latest round of negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Both parties are due to meet British prime minister Theresa May in London today.

Last week DUP leader Arlene Foster called time on the talks, saying her party could not accept a standalone Irish language act.

It is understood the two parties were close to a deal to restore devolution but that DUP rank and file rejected what was on offer.

The secretary of state said progress on “all the key substantive issues” had been made.

“It became possible in the light of this progress to identify a basis for a possible agreement to allow an executive to be formed, embracing how the parties ensured the executive was sustainable, and how they reached a balanced and fair accommodation on the difficult issues of language and culture, and how this was reflected in a package of legislation,” she said.

“Many other issues were addressed too, if not always resolved.”

However, she said it was not possible to finalize an agreement.

Mrs. Bradley said the devolved government was both in the best interests of Northern Ireland’s population and in “maintaining and strengthening the union.”

But she said the region could not “remain in a state of limbo” and that “challenging decisions” needed to be taken.

“In particular, as the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has made clear, there needs to be certainty and clarity about a budget for Northern Ireland for next year as soon as possible, and I intend to take steps to provide clarity on the budget and I will update the house as soon as I am in a position to do so,” she said.

“This is clearly not where I want to be, but in the absence of an executive in Northern Ireland I will have no other choice.”

She said in the longer term the British government would not shirk its responsibilities and would maintain its commitment to “govern with rigorous impartiality.”

The secretary of state also acknowledged “public concern” that MLAs were on full pay while the assembly was not sitting and said she would consider cutting their salaries, alongside the prospects for another assembly election.

She added that she would proceed as soon as possible with a consultation on legacy matters.

DUP MP Nigel Dodds responded by saying it was a “dereliction of duty” to continue without a spending plan or ministers to make decisions.

Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots later said it was “time for the government to set a budget and make key decisions for schools, hospitals, mental health, roads, and broadband.”

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said the two governments needed to call the British-Irish governmental conference and “move to implement previous agreements.”

She claimed the secretary of state “singularly failed to progress those issues which the British government is directly responsible for,” including legacy inquest funding.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann described the Commons statement as “underwhelming” and repeated a call for publication of the proposed deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

“I appreciate that she has a very difficult job to do in trying to resolve this situation, but unfortunately I believe today’s statement only further indulges those who demonstrate intransigence and ineptitude in the face of the very real challenges facing Northern Ireland,” he said.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said there were options the secretary of state needed to consider to aid the restoration of devolution, such as legislating in Westminster on issues under dispute and “transitional arrangements to address the current democratic deficit.”