Northern Ireland minister hints at ‘alternatives’ if no agreement on restoring institutions

Irish Government argues at conference in Boston that unilateral approach by Britain to dealing with legacy issues will not bear fruit

The British Government may have to conclude at some point that restoration of the political institutions in Stormont is unlikely and consider alternatives, a Northern Ireland Office Minister has told a conference in the United States.

Speaking at the Kennedy Institute in Boston on Tuesday, Lord Jonathan Caine said there was a real drive under way to try restore the executive and the assembly.

However, he appeared to suggest that these efforts might not be successful.

Lord Caine said: “In the absence of executive and assembly we have given civil servants some limited additional powers but it is not a long-term solution and it is not a sustainable solution. I had to take a budget bill through the House of Lords two weeks ago.”


“We do not want to be doing these things in Westminster at all.”

“But being realistic, despite our efforts, we might come to a stage where we have to say that this is looking unlikely in the near future and think about some alternatives. But it would not be sensible to speculate on quite what they would be at this stage.”

The Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, who was representing the Irish Government at the conference, said the fundamental guiding objective should be to implement the Belfast agreement “to its fullest”.

“The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs are correct in that patience is not infinite.”

However, he said “we have always worked forward in a collegiate way”.

“Our focus should be to redouble our efforts now to get the institutions back up and running. But it is important as well as that we scenario plan. What happens if that does not happen?

“How in practical terms for people in the North do we get a budget passed? How do we replace the chief constable?”

“In the North/South bodies, one of which I have the pleasure of sharing responsibility for, we can’t appoint board members. Things that affect the island as a whole in terms of climate, biodiversity, infrastructure – all the projects we have been working on together very well.”

Speaking on the British government legislation covering legacy issues arising from the Troubles, Lord Caine said he acknowledged it was “a really difficult and challenging” measure for many people.

“At its heart what the [British] government has tried to do here is make a realistic assessment what it can reasonably deliver to victims, survivors and families 25 years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, nearly 30 years after the ceasefires and well over 50 years since the beginning of the Troubles”

He said this was against the background of the likelihood of prosecutions taking place for events that took place 30- 50 years ago was going to be “vanishingly rare” and where the existing mechanisms and processes for looking at legacy issues only worked for a small minority of the community.

Lord Caine said the plan did not represent “a general amnesty”.

He said if the current plan did not go ahead, " the chances of succeeding on legacy for any future government would be very limited indeed and lots of families would still be waiting for answers that would never come”.

Mr O’Brien said where progress was made previously on sensitive issues in relation to Northern Ireland was when the British and Irish governments worked together.

“I do not believe a unilateral approach will bear fruit, to be very honest. We need to look back at what has been agreed.”

“We are concerned as a Government with the legacy act which has now received royal assent now and both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have articulated those concerns.

“It is not our preferred way forward. The way forward has been agreed and we need also to respect the views of the stakeholders in Northern Ireland.”

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent