UK raises prospect of direct rule for Northern Ireland if talks fail

Brokenshire says in absence of devolved government, UK must provide stability

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire:  “Should the talks not succeed in their objectives, the government will have to consider all options.” Photograph: PA

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire: “Should the talks not succeed in their objectives, the government will have to consider all options.” Photograph: PA

 

The British government could impose direct rule on Northern Ireland if the parties fail to reach a deal by Easter, northern secretary James Brokenshire has told MPs.

In a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Brokenshire said he did not want a return to direct rule from Westminster but that it was not sustainable for Northern Ireland to be without an executive for more than a further short period.

“Should the talks not succeed in their objectives, the government will have to consider all options,” he said.

“I therefore want to give the House notice that, following the Easter recess, as a minimum it would be my intention to bring forward legislation to set a regional rate to enable local councils to carry out their functions and to provide further assurance around the budget for Northern Ireland.”

Mr Brokenshire held open the option of calling fresh Assembly elections, although he said he detected little appetite for it in Northern Ireland. He said the focus must be on intensifying efforts to reach an agreement between the parties that would allow an executive to be formed.

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds blamed Sinn Féin for the impasse, saying his party had set no preconditions in the talks and was willing to restore devolution.

“While we are determined to create the conditions for devolution and we want to make it work in partnership with Sinn Féin and others, we need a willing partner that will work realistically within the parameters of a Northern Ireland with devolved government, within the United Kingdom but within the institutions as agreed, and with Brexit a reality.

Main ambitions

“Some of us fear that Sinn Féin has now decided that the time for devolution is over and that it is moving on to a different phase, where its main ambitions lie southwards,” he said.

The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell said the impact on Northern Ireland of leaving the EU was a key issue in creating instability and in the election but had only featured a peripheral issue in the talks between the parties. He urged Mr Brokenshire to convene a roundtable of all the northern parties to agree a common approach to the Brexit negotiations.

A number of MPs called for the prime minister and the Taoiseach to travel to Northern Ireland and to take charge of the talks, recalling the role played by British and Irish leaders in the past. Others suggested that the United States could play a role in encouraging the parties to reach an agreement, a suggestion Mr Brokenshire rejected.

He said he was working closely with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who was playing an “extremely important” role in the talks.

“The prime minister has been fully engaged in the process and remains so. She has had a number of conversations with the Taoiseach. I have kept her very closely informed and she has very much been there, understanding the need to see progress and supporting the process. She will continue to do so,” he said.