Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has faced down criticism from DUP MPs over his commitment to legislating at Westminster on the Irish language and other cultural issues if Stormont fails to do so by October.
Mr Lewis said as a co-guarantor and signatory of the New Decade New Approach agreement that restored Stormont last year, the British government had an obligation to ensure it was implemented.
“We have a duty to ensure that, for all the people of Northern Ireland, these things are delivered in a way that is set out and agreed by the parties. I would much rather see that delivered by the institution itself. That is why we have given time and space for the institution to be able to move things forward,” he said.
The DUP's Sammy Wilson accused Conservative MPs, including Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chairman Simon Hoare, of behaving in a condescending way towards Stormont's politicians, comparing them to colonial rulers.
"I have to say, the kind of condescending, patronising attitude that we get from the Chair of the Select Committee does not go down very well in Northern Ireland-this kind of condescending attitude: "If the natives can't get it together, then let's do it here. He was talking like some 19th-century colonial ruler," he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Westminster would not have to intervene if the DUP and Sinn Féin fulfilled their responsibility at Stormont instead of threatening to bring down the institutions over issues like the Northern Ireland protocol and the Irish language.
“I do not want this place legislating at all in the devolved space, but if parties like the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot deliver in government, this is what is going to keep happening time and again. If you want to stop Westminster going over the heads of the devolved Government, do the things that you agreed to do in the first place, and then we will not be in this situation,” he said.
They were speaking during a debate on the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill which changes the rules for forming an Executive, holding elections and voting on petitions of concern and introduces a new code of conduct for ministers at Stormont. It implements part of the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored the Executive last year after three years and means that the First Minister or Deputy First Minister resigning would not necessarily trigger a new Assembly election for up to 24 weeks, during which time other Executive ministers would remain in post.
At present, the Northern Ireland secretary must call an election if ministers have not been appointed within 14 days of an Assembly election and within seven days of the posts of First or Deputy First Ministers becoming vacant during a parliamentary term. Under the new legislation, other Executive ministers would continue in post for up to 24 weeks after an election, and for up to 48 weeks after a First or Deputy First Minister stops holding office.
‘We don’t make threats’
At present, 30 MLAs can use a petition of concern to force a matter before the Assembly to require cross-community support – a majority of both Unionist-designated and Nationalist-designated MLAs. Under the new legislation, there will be a 14-day period of consideration before such a petition can be affirmed and petitioners will have to include members of at least two parties.
Earlier, Brexit minister David Frost told the Commons foreign affairs committee that he did not expect the Northern Ireland protocol to survive in its current form and accused the EU of being too quick to resort to threats.
“We haven’t made a secret of the fact that we find it hard to see how, as currently operated, important elements of the protocol are sustainable. I don’t think that’s a new judgment. We have also said that we are considering all our options, and we are doing so,” he said.
“If I have one criticism perhaps, it is sometimes it feels like the resort to threats is a bit quick. We don’t make threats in quite the same way as I think some players in the EU do. I think if we could just dial that down a bit, it would help.”