Direct rule demands from DUP MPs rejected by Karen Bradley

Northern secretary says issue of same-sex marriage should be left to devolved assembly

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley arriving at Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley arriving at Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

 

The British government has reaffirmed its “100 per cent” commitment to the Belfast Agreement and rejected calls for an immediate return to direct rule from Westminster following last week’s collapse of power-sharing talks at Stormont.

Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson each affirmed the government’s support for the 1998 agreement, which has come under attack from hard Brexiteers in recent days.

Ms Bradley told MPs that her government remained steadfast in its support for the agreement and was committed to its full implementation. And she rejected repeated calls from DUP MPs to impose direct rule by appointing ministers from Westminster to run government departments in Northern Ireland.

“This government believes in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. We want to see local politicians taking decisions over local matters, accountable to a local Assembly,” she said.

Ms Bradley said she would take the necessary steps to set a budget for Northern Ireland but she would continue to explore with the DUP and Sinn Féin whether the power-sharing talks could be revived. The government would only consider imposing direct rule after all options to restore devolved government had been considered, including the calling of fresh Assembly elections.

In his first intervention in the House since undergoing the cancer surgery that precipitated his resignation as Northern Ireland secretary last month, James Brokenshire urged his successor to resist calls to impose direct rule.

“We do need to remain very firmly focused on restoring devolved government and rather than talking up direct rule, we should continue to be focused on talking out the remaining issues that lie between the two parties,” he said.

DUP MPs warned that essential services in Northern Ireland would suffer if Ms Bradley continued to resist calls to restore direct rule. The party’s leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds said it was “a dereliction of duty” to continue without ministerial decisions.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said the Belfast Agreement had given Sinn Féin “a power of veto and blackmail” over devolved government. But most MPs condemned the suggestion this week by former Conservative Northern Ireland secretary Owen Patterson and Labour’s Kate Hoey that the agreement had outlived its usefulness.

Earlier, Mr Davis said after a speech in Vienna that both sides in the Brexit negotiations agreed on the centrality of the agreement in determining the future of Northern Ireland.

“I’m not conscious of anybody talking down the Good Friday Agreement, certainly nobody in government has. Everything that we’re doing is aiming towards ensuring we meet every aspect of it. So I don’t foresee that being a problem,” he said.

In a written answer to a question from Labour MP Conor McGinn, Ms Bradley said that Westminster could legislate to extend marriage equality to Northern Ireland and that the government would allow a free vote on the issue.

In the House on Tuesday, however, she said that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland and that she would not support any move to legislate for it from Westminster.