Belfast Telegraph

Brokenshire left facing some very tough decisions

By David Gordon

It can be safely assumed that James Brokenshire was not appointed Secretary of State with a full-blown devolution crisis in mind.

But that is the reality he now faces, and his low-key approach to date is not going to be enough.

Vital questions remain unanswered, and his statement to the House of Commons later today needs to clear away uncertainties.

Mr Brokenshire yesterday said only a "few short weeks" remain to resolve the Stormont stalemate.

Or what, exactly? A return to indefinite direct rule?

Does his "few short weeks" remark mean he'll be imposing a new talks deadline? Is he going to let us know what it is?

The Secretary of State also told yesterday's Press conference that there is no appetite for "any immediate snap election".

That's a phrase capable of different interpretations.

Does he intend to legislate at Westminster to postpone or halt an election?

There are no good reasons for continuing uncertainty on the prospect of another Assembly election. It is very hard to see a fresh poll doing anything to help restore devolution.

You can safely bet on another bruising campaign, more red line pledges, relations between parties further soured.

While the election option still hangs in the air, it also adds to the general drifting fog of political uncertainty.

Parties are not going to be in full compromising mode if they think they might be back at the hustings in just a few weeks.

In another seemingly significant comment yesterday, Mr Brokenshire said: "We are rapidly approaching the point at which Northern Ireland will not have an agreed budget. This is not sustainable and will have consequences for public services."

That would appear to mean he's not going to wait too long before intervening.

But how exactly? It could mean full fat direct rule.

But an alternative might be a Westminster budget and rates order for Northern Ireland. That would ensure a budget with ministerial authority was in place. This would protect public services and publicly funded bodies from the uncertainty that awaits them, if Northern Ireland government remains a budget-free zone.

A Westminster budget is hardly ideal in terms of democratic accountability.

But it could be based on the budgetary talks that took place both during the talks and before the Executive fell. And, of course, locally-elected ministers would be free to alter it if they get back into power.

Aside from the budget crisis, Mr Brokenshire has other big calls to make.

The talks over the last few weeks have not been impressive, trundling on with no chairman and no round table cross-party plenary sessions.

Pressure will surely intensify now for a much more structured and time-limited process with an independent chairman.

And if the weeks without a functioning Assembly turn into months, then the murmuring demands for a halt to MLA pay will turn into a roar.

The Secretary of State cites hill-walking in the Scottish Highlands as one of his hobbies. Heading for those hills is not an option for him.

Tough decisions are looming.

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