Irish direct rule call has May facing crisis
BRITAIN: Prime Minister Theresa May was yesterday facing a political crisis in Northern Ireland after the Democratic Unionist Party said power-sharing talks had collapsed and suggested a form of direct rule should be introduced once again.
The DUP, which props up the Conservative government in Westminster, refused to agree to Sinn Fein demands to introduce legal protections for the Irish language, and said there was ‘‘no prospect’’ of a deal.
The crisis threatens to throw the Good Friday Agreement into jeopardy and is a blow to May’s authority as she tries to finalise a Brexit deal over the Irish border.
She had raised hopes of a breakthrough 48 hours earlier during a visit to Northern Ireland after meeting Arlene Foster, the DUP leader.
However, Foster yesterday raised the prospect of a return to direct rule, saying it was now up to London ‘‘to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure’’.
The DUP’s lead negotiator said May’s visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday to meet the parties had been a ‘‘distraction’’ in the attempts to get talks going, and suggested she should not have made the trip. Urgent talks are now likely to take place between London and Dublin.
Sinn Fein is expected formally to respond today to the breakdown in talks, with senior officials hoping a last-minute compromise can be found.
Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will make a statement to Parliament next week. Yesterday she admitted the government now had ‘‘uncomfortable decisions’’ to make.
Bradley’s only legal option is to call another election in the province, but she could come under pressure from the DUP MPs not to do so if she wants to retain their support for the minority British government.
Government sources conceded that a return to direct rule had now increased in likelihood.
One source said: ‘‘We are considering practical steps and challenging decisions have to be made, certainly about a budget for Northern Ireland.’’
Yesterday Lord Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland secretary, warned the DUP to ‘‘reflect long and hard on what is at stake’’.
‘‘This is very disappointing ... There has to be give and take in this process, on all sides, even when things seem difficult to concede in the short term. This is a time for leadership.’’
Theresa Villiers, another former Northern Ireland secretary, said a return to direct rule ‘‘would be a big setback’’.
‘‘There have been many setbacks in cross-party talks in Stormont over the years. Some of the issues under discussion have divided opinion on the island of Ireland for centuries,’’ she said.
A return to direct rule for the first time since 2007 would threaten the Good Friday Agreement at a time when the continuation of the Northern Ireland peace process is seen as crucial in the Brexit negotiations. Relations between London and Dublin are already strained over the Brexit talks, and the Irish government might be less inclined to accept a deal on the border which has not been signed off by the Northern Ireland executive.
Direct rule can only be instituted if a law is passed in Parliament giving British ministers powers to run Ulster.
For the past 13 months since the collapse of the executive in January last year, the province has been run by civil servants who have had to make spending decisions themselves.
James Brokenshire, the thenNorthern Ireland secretary, tried to solve the crisis by calling elections in March which saw Sinn Fein come within 1000 votes of being the largest party. Direct rule would be seen as a preferred option by Foster, given Sinn Fein’s gains.
Foster said: ‘‘In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an executive being formed. Important decisions impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland have been sitting in limbo for too long.’’
Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein leader, said: ‘‘The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process.
‘‘These issues are not going away. Sinn Fein are now in contact with both governments. The DUP should reflect on their position.’’
Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, added: ‘‘I very much regret the statement from the DUP. Power-sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland.’’
The Stormont government collapsed last year in a row over a botched green energy scheme. Since then, divisions over issues including Irish language rights, same-sex marriage and the legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past have proved insurmountable.
– Telegraph Group