UK signals greater powers for Northern Ireland civil servants

By on 12/09/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Northern Ireland minister Karen Bradley wants to bring forward legislation to create a limited period during which the government is not under a legal obligation to set a date for new elections.

The UK government intends to give civil servants in Northern Ireland greater powers to make decisions in the absence of local elected leaders, the Westminster administration’s minister for the province has announced.

Northern Ireland minister Karen Bradley also said last week that she will bring forward legislation to create a limited period during which the government is not under a legal obligation to set a date for new elections. The minister believes that this will provide an opportunity to re-establish political talks aimed at restoring the executive, which collapsed in January last year. Bradley said that during this period, “an executive may be formed at any point without the requirement for further legislation”.

The government’s move to give civil servants greater decision-making powers comes in the wake of a court ruling that a Northern Irish permanent secretary had exceeded his powers by approving a waste-to-energy plant. Head of the Northern Ireland civil service David Stirling appealed the ruling, pointing out that in the absence of an Executive civil servants have been making decisions “reluctantly” and that it was “important that we obtain greater clarity on the legal position”.

Decisions, absent democracy?

In July this appeal was knocked back, the judge ruling that “it would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the (Good Friday) Agreement and the 1998 (Northern Ireland) Act for such decisions to be made by departments in the absence of a minister.”

Following the appeal’s rejection, Bradley has decided to legislate to unblock decision-making. “Critical strategic decisions… need to be taken on Northern Ireland – on, for example, investment, reform of public services and future budgets,” she told the House of Commons on 6 September. “Critical cross-cutting programmes… are stalling following 19 months without devolved government.”

“The legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable NI departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services,” she continued. “I intend to consult parties in Northern Ireland over how this might best be done.”

The conundrum

Matthew O’Toole, a former Downing Street Brexit spokesman, told Global Government Forum: “At the minute, there is no means for civil servants to get decisions made by the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office or to take decisions themselves. That is what Bradley is trying to address.”

However, he said that giving civil servants the right to take decisions without ministerial input would be “clearly problematic in any democracy.” He added that the UK government’s Westminster supply and confidence arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Tory administration, would make the introduction of anything approaching direct rule from London highly inflammatory within the nationalist community. Yet “the reality is that there is not going to be a devolved administration this autumn”.

Chilly reception

Bradley met this week with political parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the proposals. However, following the meeting Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann said he was unimpressed by the proposals, which he said contained “no bite, no detail and no direction in what we heard”.

“There is an expectation out there amongst the public that the legislation which the secretary of state is going to bring forward would offer progress on some of those important issues that have been left on the shelf since the collapse of the Assembly and Executive,” he said. “However, from our conversation today it seems that things like the suicide prevention strategy, implementation of the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry, and equality of pay for public sector workers in Northern Ireland in line with their colleagues in the rest of the UK will not be addressed.”

Sinn Féin was still more unimpressed, with vice president Michelle O’Neill commenting that Bradley’s proposal is “clearly undemocratic in nature and undermining of the Good Friday Agreement”. The UK government has “consistently prioritised their relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party over getting the institutions up and running again,” she added.

With the UK government dependent for its survival on DUP votes in Westminster, and the DUP arguably enjoying more influence through Westminster than it could in a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, it is not clear why Bradley thinks that allowing more time for negotiations is likely to result in a successful restoration of devolved administration.

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.

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