Civil servants left running Northern Ireland after power-sharing talks collapse

By on 10/07/2017
Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Image courtesy: Dom0803).

The government of Northern Ireland is set to remain in the hands of civil servants until September after power-sharing talks broke down last week.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire declared an open-ended hiatus in the cross-party negotiations on Tuesday 4 July, just one day after telling MPs that he continued “to believe that a deal remains achievable”.

“And if agreement is reached, I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed possibly as early as this week,” he said in the House of Commons on 3 July, after extending the 29 June deadline so talks could continue over the weekend.

But in a statement released the following day, the Northern Ireland secretary said: “Despite the progress made by the parties to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, gaps remain.

“Following discussions with the two largest parties and with the Irish government this morning, it is clear that these issues cannot be resolved quickly enough to enable an executive to be formed in the immediate term.”

Sinn Fein blamed the impasse on British Prime Minister Theresa May and her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to support the minority Conservative government in Westminster, Reuters reported.

Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill said: “What this constitutes is a monumental failure on behalf of Theresa May. She has set back decades of work that has been done here throughout the years.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party wants to see devolution restored and will not abandon the talks process. “We are going to keep working at it over the summer and hopefully we can come to an agreement later on in the year,” she said.

Brokenshire pledged to “reflect carefully in the coming days on any further steps which may be required to support the continued effective provision of public services in Northern Ireland”.

Pundits expect the minister’s next step will be to bring forward legislation in Westminster for a budget to authorise full expenditure by Northern Ireland government departments – a move hinted at in his speech on Monday. But with little prospect of agreement during the July ‘marching season’ – when Loyalist groups parade in the streets, heightening tensions with Republicans – this is not expected to take place until Parliament resumes in September.

The province has been run by civil servants since March after its main political parties failed to form an executive, following regional elections that were triggered by a scandal over a green energy scheme.

The Northern Ireland coalition government fell in January, when Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader the late Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme scandal.

An ongoing inquiry into the scandal is a key stumbling block in the power-sharing talks, along with the issues around the Irish language, Brexit and the legacy of the province’s troubled past.

On 29 March, 75 per cent of the province’s budget – amounting to more than £10 billion – was put under the control of David Sterling, Permanent Secretary to the province’s Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The provision, which was used for the first time ever, allows Sterling to use the money “for such services and purposes” as he directs. If no budget is agreed by the end of July, he will then be allowed to spend 95 per cent of the budget over the year – an effective five per cent cut in public services.

On 15 June, Sterling, who is widely perceived as a safe pair of hands, was appointed interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The move allowed the existing head Dr Malcolm McKibben, to focus on chairing the power-sharing talks, the BBC reported.

McKibben, who is due to retire, took over the role from Brokenshire after both nationalists and republicans questioned the minister’s impartiality.

Sterling joined the civil service in 1979 and rose through the ranks to become Permanent Secretary of the province’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2009 before moving to the DFP in 2016.

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See also:

UK government splits grow over austerity

Parliamentary maths looks set to change UK’s Brexit course

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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