No-deal Brexit would trigger talks on direct rule in North, says Gove

Stormont suspension not sustainable if UK crashes out and Dublin ‘engagement’ needed

British environment secretary  Michael Gove: spoke of the “very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule”. Photograph: Andy Rain

British environment secretary Michael Gove: spoke of the “very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule”. Photograph: Andy Rain

 

The British government would start “formal engagement” with Dublin about introducing a form of direct rule for Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a senior minister has told MPs.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, who was standing in for Theresa May as the opening speaker in a debate about a no-deal Brexit, said the current arrangements in Northern Ireland could not withstand such an outcome.

In the two years since the Stormont institutions were suspended, the British government has introduced legislation which empowers Northern Ireland civil servants to continue to take decisions which are in the public interest. 

“Now that arrangement is sustainable at the moment but of course it is the sincerest hope of myself, my colleagues in government and almost everyone across the House that we can restore the Northern Ireland executive. But it is also clear that the current situation with no executive would be very, very difficult to sustain in the uniquely challenging context of a no-deal exit,” Mr Gove said. 

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“Now we – in the circumstances that the House has voted for no-deal – would have to start formal engagement with the Irish Government about further arrangements for providing strengthened decision-making in the event of that outcome. And that would include the very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule.”

Free vote

MPs were debating a motion that would rule out leaving the European Union without a deal on March 29th, which the government supported but initially gave Conservative MPs a free vote on. When an amendment ruling out a no-deal Brexit at any time was passed by four votes, the government imposed a three-line whip ordering Conservatives to vote against its own motion.

Despite the whip, the motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit was passed by 321 votes to 278, a majority of 43, with a number of ministers defying the whip by voting for the motion or abstaining.

Conservatives were also allowed a free vote on the so-called “Malthouse amendment” which called for an extension of article 50 until May 22nd followed by a 30-month transition period after which Britain would leave the EU without a deal.

Unavailable option

The amendment would have obliged the government to ask the EU for something that Brussels has made clear is unavailable: a transition period without the withdrawal agreement or the Northern Ireland backstop. The motion was defeated by 374 votes to 164.

Earlier chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond warned that a no-deal Brexit would make Britain poorer and he called for a cross-party compromise on how Britain should leave the EU.

“Leaving with no deal would mean significant disruption in the short and medium term and a smaller, less prosperous economy in the long term than if we leave with a deal. Higher unemployment, lower wages and higher prices in the shops are not what the British people voted for in June 2016. That is why we all have a solemn duty in the days and weeks ahead to put aside our differences and seek a compromise on which this House can agree in the national interest,” he said.

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