Bradley resists calls for direct rule

05 July 2018 - by Matthew Coyle

For MPs accustomed to Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s often cautious statements before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since her appointment in January, one early remark during Wednesday’s meeting was far from insignificant.

In stark contrast to the largely innocuous tenor of her public declarations on the state of the Stormont impasse – a tone undoubtedly rendered more guarded by the collapse in February of negotiations aimed at re-establishing the DUP-Sinn Féin power-sharing arrangements – Bradley offered up a refreshingly honest assessment of the reasons for her reluctance to implement more direct, proactive governance in Northern Ireland.

While many in her sphere, most volubly the DUP, urge the Secretary of State to take whatever steps are necessary for ministerial decision making in Northern Ireland (and if that means the introduction of direct rule from Whitehall, goes the suggestion, then so be it) she persists in her resistance to such calls.  

Bradley admitted that there is no realistic prospect of any immediate return to talks, yet was quick to lay down as clear a position as we’ve heard up to this point:

We will take decisions that need to be taken in Westminster as we need to take them but I’m extraordinarily reluctant to move towards a situation where we give up on the institutions set up by the Belfast Agreement and decide that they are no longer fit for purpose.”

She added:

In order for me to have executive powers, we would have to suspend the institutions … We would need to legislate to do that and I do not want to take that step because I do not want to give up on those institutions while there is still a possibility and there is still a desire from the parties in Northern Ireland to get back into devolved government ... I don’t believe the right thing to do is just give up on that. I don’t want to move into a position where we’re doing a very different, extreme approach.”

Sustainable government, Bradley concluded, “is in Stormont. It is not in Westminster.”

Later questioning on funding for the PSNI’s post-Brexit operations and the increasingly tortuous issue of MLA salaries may have seen her revert to a more familiar non-committal stance – the latter topic continues to confound Lady Sylvia Hermon – but those initial pronouncements suggest that London remains, publically at least, stubborn in its refusal to countenance anything more than the occasional interventions it has made since January 2017.

Indeed, the Secretary of State’s recognition of the profound undertaking that is suspension of devolution and the imposition of direct rule suggests a unity of purpose and clarity of thinking somewhat less than evident in the government's discussions around how the UK’s impending withdrawal from the European Union might affect Northern Ireland.

Whether such frankness focuses minds or sows complacency within our political class will be a future test that cannot be indefinitely delayed.