UK issues ‘final deadline’ for Stormont deal

By on 25/10/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Former president, Bill Clinton, helped to secure the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought devolved government back to Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has given Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party a final warning after months of wrangling, insisting that they must agree a new power-sharing deal by Monday 30th October or control of Northern Ireland’s budget will be handed back to Westminster.

The ultimatum came as former US President Bill Clinton met with UK prime minister Theresa May last week to discuss the continuing political deadlock at Stormont, after Clinton held private talks with the province’s main party leaders earlier in the week.

The former president helped to secure the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought devolved government back to Northern Ireland. That peace deal ended three decades of sectarian violence in which more than 3,500 people died.

Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants since March, when the main parties failed to form a government following a regional election triggered by a scandal over a green energy scheme. At least three deadlines for forming an executive have been missed to date, but Brokenshire insisted that the legislative framework gives him no option but to repatriate control over spending unless a new written agreement is signed by the end of October.

The Northern Ireland secretary said that Sinn Fein and the DUP are seeking to find agreement and their remaining issues are “small in number but highly difficult and sensitive”, especially in relation to language and culture.

“The outlook for an imminent resolution is not positive,” he said. “Time is running out. And without an agreement, we are on a glide path to increasing intervention by the UK government.”

Paying tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service for dealing with the lack of an executive with the “utmost professionalism”, Brokenshire said spending limits imposed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 require a budget for the province to be set by the end of November.

“Working from that deadline, the Northern Ireland Civil Service have assessed that it would still be possible, with political agreement among the parties in the assembly, for an executive formed in the week commencing 6 November to take forward its own budget,” he said.

“Consequently, the last week I could introduce executive formation legislation in parliament for an executive to take forward its own budget would be the week commencing 30 October.

Final Warning – James Brockenshire, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, issues an ultimatum to Sinn Fein and the DUP (Image courtesy: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright/CC).

“I have made clear that I will only legislate in this way on the basis of a written agreement between the parties. If this is not forthcoming before 30 October, the only option remaining would be to legislate for a budget at Westminster.

“This is not a step I wish to take, nor one I would take lightly. My strong preference is for a restored executive in Northern Ireland to take forward its own budget. Without an executive, though, it would be grossly remiss for the UK government not to step in and take action to ensure the continued funding of critical services in Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland’s political system has been in crisis since the collapse of the coalition government in January, when Sinn Fein leader the late Martin McGuinness stepped down as Deputy First Minister in protest at the handling of the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme.

Under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which devolved further powers to the Northern Ireland executive, the UK government has to get legislation through the UK parliament to restore direct rule from Westminster.

After 10 years of devolved administration, there is speculation that the UK government may now be aiming for a limited form of direct rule, in which it only passes legislation for important bills such as the budget, in a bid to keep nationalist parties on board.

Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Image courtesy: Dom0803).

In September, the UK government rejected a demand from the Irish government for a role in running Northern Ireland if the power-sharing talks should fail, Reuters reported.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, all parties with significant representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly are entitled to take part in the executive, with the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister allocated to the two largest parties.

But negotiations have been made more difficult by the death of McGuinness – a former IRA commander who eventually embraced the peace process – and the combative approach of new DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose handful of Westminster MPs have enormous influence in London due to their role propping up Theresa May’s minority Conservative administration.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. 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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