Brokenshire warns of new Assembly elections if no deal

‘Cash-for-ash’ inquiry will take longer than six months to complete

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Northern Secretary James Brokenshire. They held a further round of talks in Stormont on Thursday

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Northern Secretary James Brokenshire. They held a further round of talks in Stormont on Thursday

 

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has warned fresh elections could be called in three weeks if Northern Ireland’s political parties cannot agree a deal to restore the Assembly and the Executive.

Meanwhile, the retired judge who is chairing the investigation into the “cash-for-ash” scheme that triggered the collapse of the Assembly has said that he will not be publishing a preliminary report.

Instead, Sir Patrick Coghlin has said that there is no prospect that his inquiry into the scheme – it could cost the North’s taxpayers up to £500 million – can be completed within six months.

The retired judge’s intervention is significant given that Sinn Féin has repeatedly demanded that DUP leader Arlene Foster should not hold the position of First Minister while an inquiry is under way.

Mr Brokenshire and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan held a further round of talks in Stormont on Thursday, though it is too early to say if a deal can be found.

If there is no agreement within three weeks, Mr Brokenshire is required to call new elections. However, there has been an expectation that in such an eventuality he would bring in special legislation to allow for extended talks.

In an apparent effort to put pressure on the parties, Mr Brokenshire has now written to MPs indicating that he may press ahead with elections if the parties cannot agree.

Short window

“Ultimately we would also be facing a second election with ongoing disruption and uncertainty for businesses and the people of Northern Ireland that that would bring.”

One of the big hurdles to striking a deal is the Sinn Féin insistence that Ms Foster cannot be First Minister until Sir Patrick adjudicates on whether or not she is culpable for the “cash-for-ash” fiasco.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams had indicated Ms Foster could return as First Minister if she were exonerated in an interim report provided by the inquiry chairman. And while it is unclear whether Ms Foster would agree to temporarily stand down in any circumstances, Sir Patrick said his report would not be completed within six months and there would be no preliminary report.

Six months

Ruling out a preliminary report, he said interim conclusions would be based on incomplete information and might have to be changed. “It would also have the potential to be unfair to those who may be involved.”

Sir Patrick said public hearings would be held at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. “This will be an inquisitorial process, designed to establish the facts. It is not an adversarial trial, and has no power to determine any person’s criminal or civil liability.”

Sir Patrick added that senior British civil servant Dame Una O’Brien had joined him on the inquiry panel, and that the inquiry had also appointed as an assessor Dr Keith MacLean who has “extensive experience in the energy industry”.