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Northern Ireland Catholics calling for direct rule in bid to end impasse at Stormont, claims Conservative MP

By Richard Wheeler and Jon Val

Catholics living in Northern Ireland have called for a return to direct rule to end the political chaos, a senior Conservative MP has said.

Laurence Robertson, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said it was "really unfortunate" that returning decision-making powers to Westminster is viewed as the best way to resolve difficulties here.

Mr Robertson told the Commons the suggestion was put to him during a recent visit to Northern Ireland, noting most people do not want such action, although they would prefer it if the choice is "between chaos and direct rule".

The DUP's North Antrim MP Ian Paisley also warned the Government's proposed law to allow Westminster to set and collect rates to fund local council services has "tipped the scales in favour" of direct rule.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire earlier denied the Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates) Bill represents a return to direct rule. It also extends the time Stormont's rowing parties have to form a power-sharing agreement to June 29, three weeks after the General Election.

The legislation will enable the collection of household rates payments in Northern Ireland, funds that run local council services, as well as paving the way for future legislation for Westminster to set a budget in Northern Ireland if no Executive is formed after the latest round of talks.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Robertson said: "Just a couple of weeks ago I was in Northern Ireland on a social visit speaking to friends over there, actually Catholics if that's an important factor - it is an important factor because of what I'm about to say.

"And they said to me, 'For goodness sake Laurence, get on with it, bring direct rule back because that's the only way we're going to get any decisions taken'.

"Now, they don't particularly want to see that, most people probably don't want to see that, but if it's choice between chaos and direct rule, people will go for direct rule - they have to do, and it's really unfortunate that we've got to that position."

In a message aimed at Sinn Fein, Mr Robertson added: "Can I just say to those who are likely to bring about that situation - and it's not people who are present in this chamber here today, in my belief, it's people who refuse to take their seats in this chamber.

"It really would be rather paradoxical, rather strange that one party that says they don't want rule from this place are actually the party that brings it about. I mean, how odd would that be?"

Mr Robertson, a former shadow Northern Ireland minister, said direct rule does not mean the Commons as a whole decides everything but committees consisting of around 20 MPs - including very few from Northern Ireland.

He said: "That is the reality of direct rule and I'd say to those who are getting in the way of the institutions being set up again, is that how you want Northern Ireland to be governed?"

Earlier, Mr Brokenshire made clear that if no government is in place by the latest talks deadline of June 29, he will intervene to effectively set Stormont's budget for the rest of the financial year.

He published indicative figures for a budget he will impose if the Stormont's parties do not reach agreement in the ongoing talks. Stormont's finances have been under the control of a senior civil servant since the start of the financial year due to the absence of an Executive.

Figures published yesterday, include a 3% increase in cash for health spending but a 2.5% cut for education. The Department of Communities would also see a increase in its budget.

The proposed departmental budgetary allocations are based on financial assessments by senior civil servants, guided by the general policy directions of the last ministerial executive, before it imploded.

Funding would also be available for projects which were announced by the Executive as part of their 2016-17 budget.

These include the A5 and A6 road projects, the Belfast Transport Hub, and the Mother and Children's Hospital.

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