Northern Ireland Secretaries don't spend enough time here, and Tory deal with DUP viewed as creating bias: report
Northern Ireland Secretaries of State must spend more time here in order to build relationships and find out what is happening on the ground, a key report has recommended.
It recognised that parliamentary arithmetic and the risk of the Government being "ambushed" made that difficult.
But it added: "Karen Bradley was questioned on this at one of her regular sessions with the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in March 2019.
"She said she was trying to spend one working day a week in Belfast. That would be insufficient even if the Executive were up and running - and is even more so in the current circumstances."
The Institute for Government report Governing Without Ministers warns that the power vacuum here since devolution was suspended risked "stagnation and decay" in public services.
The authors of the think-tank's 68-page document spoke to a range of civil servants during their research.
The report states: "There are still important decisions that civil servants do not feel can be made in the absence of political cover.
"A prime example is the merging of NI hospital emergency departments, where performance has always been worse than their English comparator, but has been in further decline since 2017."
The authors advise Prime Ministers to "consider carefully who they make their NI Secretary".
They add: "It should be regarded as a role for a relatively senior Secretary of State who is able to command respect across the political and civil society spectrum in Northern Ireland."
The report claims the current Secretary of State lacks "clout" when raising Brexit issues with colleagues.
Julian Smith doesn't sit on a key committee advising the Prime Minister about Brexit strategy. It also states: "The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) lacks the clout within Government to ensure that Northern Ireland issues were given the priority they perhaps deserved."
It claims the Tories' confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP has diminished the Government's ability to "appear to be an even-handed, honest broker in the discussions about restoring power-sharing - or indeed in other policy areas like Brexit".
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the report highlighted "the damage that the DUP/Tory relationship has truly delivered in the perception of all of Northern Ireland on the Westminster stage".
He added: "It is very concerning that the Secretary of State is not part of a key strategy committee advising the Prime Minister on EU exit strategy as it is obvious that the Northern Ireland border and its position in backstop negotiations is integral to any future deal that must be reached."
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said: "Northern Ireland is falling further and further behind what is happening in other jurisdictions and we risk long-term damage.
"The Secretary of State needs to explain what is holding back the talks process and how he plans, in conjunction with the Irish Government, to energise the process so we can agree a sustainable way forward."
DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly said the absence of ministers was "unacceptable and unsustainable" and the report was "a body blow to the Sinn Fein's boycott" of Stormont, but she took issue with the report's reference to her party's deal with the Tories.
She said it didn't "recognise how one billion pounds has helped fund services such as after school clubs, broadband improvement and sure start".
Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion explained: "Westminster never has and never will act in the interests of the North of Ireland.
"That is why it has been rejected at the polls by the nationalist and republican community, who see their future being determined on the island of Ireland."