Belfast Telegraph

NI Assembly Election: Brokenshire soon to be centre stage in play with no script - if parties can't agree, curtain will descend on Stormont

Former Executive Press secretary David Gordon - in his first article since leaving the top position - explains how politics is now stepping into the unknown. We’ll shortly learn the election results. But what happens next?

Welcome to limbo land. Northern Ireland is now stuck somewhere between devolution and direct rule. A no man's land.

It seems likely to remain there for some time, regardless of how the votes stack up at the counts today. We have no Stormont government and no budget.

There are now no ministers in charge of our departments. Civil servants will be effectively running the place.

We haven't been here before and we don't know how it will pan out. We're not just in a play with no ending. There's no script.

The chances are that Secretary of State James Brokenshire will increasingly move centre stage. He certainly has some major lines to deliver soon.

When he landed the Northern Ireland Office role last year, he cannot have imagined such a bright spotlight shining down on him.

His first move post-election is entirely predictable. He will announce a new round of inter-party talks aimed at restoring devolution.

After that there are at least three big calls to make in the weeks and possibly months ahead.

For starters - how far should he push the threat of another election?

According to the official timetable, a deal is needed inside a month. Failing that, we're back to the polls again.

Even the most starry-eyed optimist would struggle to predict a swift deal.

But the very thought of another election is enough to bring some of us to tears.

You can be certain the parties won't want it. It'll be another big drain on resources, for a start.

It can also be safely said that it would do nothing to build public confidence in politics and politicians.

The Secretary of State can push through legislation in Westminster to postpone an election. But does that not ease the pressure on the parties in negotiations? It's one of the few levers he has.

Get a deal or get your posters up again and get ready to knock more doors and explain yourselves.

The trouble is the parties might conclude he's bluffing.

How does he counter that? Carry out his threat? That's the first Brokenshire dilemma.

Now for the next one - how long can the limbo land be allowed to continue? This brings us to the lack of a budget. If a quick talks breakthrough seems a big ask, then what are the chances of a deal, a new Executive and an agreed budget by the end of this month? If that doesn't happen and direct rule isn't introduced, budgetary responsibility is passed to the senior Civil Service, principally the top official at the Department of Finance. Contrary to some misconceptions, civil servants would not set a fully-fledged budget in those circumstances.

Their powers in this area would effectively involve keeping the lights on - ensuring funding still flows to departments and public services. It's basically an emergency stopgap measure.

Don't expect civil servants to take radical decisions - like drastically slashing other departments to generously fund the health service, or raising revenue through the likes of hiking rates or increasing student fees.

Their room for manoeuvre will be limited.

They could even find themselves exposed to the threat of legal action. Supposing a department decides to restrict spending - in light of budget uncertainty for the year ahead and the fact that money will be tight whatever is finally decided on the political front.

Any move to cut funding for particular services or organisations could be challenged through a judicial review. Civil servants would have to explain to a judge their authority for taking decisions in the absence of ministers and political accountability.

Budget uncertainty is the enemy of good planning in government. That's particularly the case in the health service.

The timing certainly isn't good for the Department of Health, given its need for significant funding to meet ever-rising demand, implement the radical reforms envisioned in the Bengoa Report and tackle the growing waiting lists.

In short, the stopgap measure of civil servants in charge of Stormont finances is not sustainable if weeks of political stalemate turn into months and months.

So how and when does Brokenshire step in? That's dilemma two.

If the talks drag on without any sign of a breakthrough, how long does he let the uncertainty continue?

Could he, for example, opt for a "weekend of direct rule" to put through a budget and sort any other pressing business piling up in the in-tray?

Alternatively, he could opt for a return to fully fledged indefinite Westminster rule.

None of the main Stormont parties want that. The same goes for the London and Dublin.

I'm sure if you asked Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, they would all agree that direct rule is a very bad idea for Northern Ireland.

Given all this consensus, it's quite something that it's widely viewed as the most likely outcome, if not virtually inevitable.

The last time devolution collapsed back in 2002, it took almost five years to put the Assembly back together.

How long would it take this time around, given all that has happened?

That takes us quite neatly to Brokenshire's dilemma number three.

Do Assembly Members keep getting paid if devolution does not return? And if so, for how long? Would the threat of an imminent pay halt encourage a talks breakthrough?

The MLA salaries kept flowing, albeit at a reduced rate, throughout the period of suspension from 2002 to 2007.

But that was a different era, before austerity and before expenses scandals.

If the pay continues this time, my old colleagues in the Nolan Show could fill the programme for weeks on this one subject.

Obviously, stopping MLA salaries would not spark protests in the streets. But what signal would it send on the likely return of devolution?

Assembly Members would soon start seeking work elsewhere. The brightest and the best would be the first to snap up new jobs - leaving the task of restoring functioning devolved institutions all the more difficult.

This politics business is not straightforward. Particularly in Northern Ireland right now.

Today, all the focus will be on the poll results, after a bruising and divisive campaign.

But it may well be that the election was the easy bit.

Former Executive Press secretary David Gordon - in his first article since leaving the Stormont post - explains how politics is now stepping into the unknown. We'll shortly learn the election results. But what happens next?

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