Belfast Telegraph

Nationalists slam 'power grab' by UK Government over direct rule plans

Support: Julian Smith
Support: Julian Smith

By Richard Wheeler

Nationalist parties have expressed anger after MPs were told that the UK Government will take steps over decision-making powers at the "earliest opportunity" if Stormont cannot be restored before an October 31 Brexit.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith signalled action would be taken, although he did not provide specifics, as he appeared in the Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour.

Fears were also raised by Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley about the impact prorogation of Parliament may have on victims of historical institutional sexual abuse and people who were disabled in the Troubles, saying they needed redress urgently.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Smith said: "Throughout the period ahead I will be doing everything I can to support and encourage talks to succeed.

"Democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland are best-placed to take the decisions needed to support hospitals, schools and the police."

Mr Smith praised the "excellent" work of civil servants in Northern Ireland, adding: "They cannot, of course, take the proactive decisions that are needed on public services or the economy in the run-up to October 31.

"If we cannot secure the restoration of an Executive we will pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd warned that senior members of the Northern Ireland civil service are "frustrated by their inability to make decisions".

He added the imminent prorogation of Parliament poses "real dangers" in terms of Northern Ireland's governance, and asked when Mr Smith was consulted about the matter.

On the Government's plans to legislate for direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Lloyd asked: "Does the Secretary of State accept that some form of direct governance, some form of direct accountability, would be necessary in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and can he tell us what steps he's taking?"

Mr Smith replied: "I think I've been very honest with the House - powers are needed, not only to ensure the current situation where civil servants across Northern Ireland are making difficult decisions without political direction, but obviously in the run-up to either a deal or no-deal that the very tricky decisions can be made, and I'm sure those will have to be made at pace."

However, documents released on Friday by order of a judge in Scotland have revealed that Mr Smith and Boris Johnson had clashed over the suspension of Parliament.

Mr Smith was not consulted about the plan to prorogue Parliament before ministers were told at Cabinet.

The BBC reported that minutes of a conference call on August 28, marked sensitive, revealed that a minister, believed to be Mr Smith, warned Mr Johnson that the timetable for the proroguing of Parliament would impact on the sitting days to pass the Northern Ireland budget bill.

In the call, Mr Johnson replied that he appreciated the complexities and sensitivities of the situation here, but that it was not clear if the answer for Northern Ireland was "more time".

On legal advice for prorogation, Mr Smith told MPs yesterday: "It's not something I or my department was involved in. That was a matter for the Attorney General."

Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion said any moves towards direct rule were "unacceptable".

The Foyle MP said: "The ongoing events in Westminster have shown that the interests of the people of Ireland will never be served by the British Government or British Parliament.

"The fact this action is being considered by Julian Smith is in contravention of the St Andrew's Agreement and underscores once again that the dysfunctional Tory Government is in complete hock to its toxic pact with the DUP."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MLA called on parties to oppose any attempt at "a power grab by the British Government as a result of Boris Johnson's prorogation plans".

The Foyle MLA said: "Without an Executive, with Parliament prorogued and with the October 31 deadline approaching, it is very clear now that the British Government will attempt a power grab against our hard-won devolution settlement to make Brexit easier for themselves.

"That cannot be allowed to happen. Direct rule by this Tory/DUP Government is not acceptable to the SDLP or to the people we represent."

He said it "remains our view that reform of the petition of concern provides a path to the resolution of these issues and the restoration of the institutions. That is an immediate imperative".

In the Commons, Ms Bradley expressed concerns about the impact proroguing Parliament may have on the people of Northern Ireland.

She said: "Can you ensure that while prorogation is in place, Government does not stop working for those that need redress, and by that I mean victims of historical institutional sexual abuse and those that were severely physically and psychologically disabled in the Troubles through no fault of their own? They need redress, they need it urgently."

Former Tory minister David Gauke said powers are needed to protect the people of Northern Ireland and the Commons needs to be sitting to legislate for those powers. He said: "Is it not clear that if this House does not get the legislation through because it is prorogued or dissolved by the end of October that the rights of the people of Northern Ireland will be detrimentally affected?"

Mr Smith said the priority is on getting Stormont up and running.

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