North heading for direct rule, says James Brokenshire

Northern Secretary says progress on talks stalled

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking  in  London, where he said  powersharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin have stalled. Photograph: PA

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking in London, where he said powersharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin have stalled. Photograph: PA

 

Northern Ireland is on a “glide path” to direct rule as talks between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party have stalled, James Brokenshire has told MPs.

In a blunt statement to the Northern Ireland Affairs committee at Westminster on Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Secretary played down the prospects of a deal to restore the executive.

“If I had given evidence to this committee last week I might have indicated some momentum, more progress. That progress stalled at the end of last week,” he said.

“Unless there is a renewed spirit of compromise then the outlook for imminent resolution is not positive. Time is running out.”

Mr Brokenshire said the two parties would have to reach agreement by October 30th for legislation at Westminster to allow a new executive to be formed in the week beginning November 6th. If they fail to meet the deadline, the British government will legislate to set a budget for Northern Ireland. Mr Brokenshire said that setting a budget for the North did not amount to direct rule but it could be the first step towards more intervention.

“We are on a glide path to greater and greater UK government intervention,” he said. “The landing lights will be on and landing gear will be down. Clearly the ultimate destination could be direct rule.”

Fresh elections

Mr Brokenshire declined to outline a timetable for progress towards direct rule and suggested he would be reluctant to call fresh elections in the North if the talks collapse.

“The best possible outcome is for locally elected politicians to make decisions and be held accountable by a locally elected assembly – that is the bedrock of the Belfast Agreement,” he said.

On Brexit, Mr Brokenshire said he was optimistic Britain and the EU would reach an agreement on their future relationship that would protect the interests of Northern Ireland.

He restated the British government’s commitment to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the Border, including cameras.

“I don’t see that the solution is having ‘cameras at the Border’. When we look at technology, that is rather about how we create systems for filing of customs declarations, how we have better processes and systems to be able to support that, rather than suggesting that there would be some sort of physical infrastructure at the Border. I do not see that as an outcome that anybody should be seeking to approach,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill has insisted she was not blocked by colleaguesfrom striking a deal with the DUP to restore the e xecutive and said her party wants an agreement.

“One way or another, this process is coming to an end. Sinn Féin is determined to achieve a successful conclusion and to see the institutions re-established,” she said.

Broken agreements

In the Dáil, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the crisis was caused by broken agreements. “Any return to British direct rule would be a breach of the St Andrews Agreement. That would be in addition to the other existing breaches,” he said.

Seperately, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of bringing Northern Ireland to the “brink of direct rule”.

“While crises engulf our health services and our schools, they have talked for month after month and have only delivered failure,” he said.

“If no deal is to be reached, it is critical that the Irish Government sticks by the position of Simon Coveney in ensuring that there can be no ‘British only direct rule’,” added Mr Eastwood.

As the DUP and Sinn Féin remain deadlocked over the Sinn Fein demand for a standalone Irish language Act, Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said it was a “scandal that the country is still being held to ransom by ideological demands – the people of Northern Ireland deserve better”.