Belfast Telegraph

Swann to reiterate call for direct rule at UUP conference

Message: Robin Swann
Message: Robin Swann

By David Young

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann has called for the appointment of direct rule ministers to address Northern Ireland's democratic deficit in the absence of a functioning Stormont.

Speaking on the eve of his party's spring conference at Belfast's Park Avenue Hotel today, the North Antrim MLA said the current situation could not continue.

There has not been a functioning Executive since January 2017.

Mr Swann told the Belfast Telegraph: "We've been saying for a number of months now that because of the lack of direction for Stormont and no sign of its imminent return, that it is time for direct rule.

"We need direct rule ministers to be making decisions in Northern Ireland. We do need elected, accountable politicians to be making those decisions."

Mr Swann said he was concerned about how important legislation affecting Northern Ireland was handled at Westminster.

There had been claims earlier in the week that legislation around cuts to Renewable Heat Incentive tariffs was being "bludgeoned" through Parliament.

Mr Swann, speaking about the issue generally, added: "At this point in time it (legislation) is being steamrollered through, without any opportunity of proper scrutiny, so the introduction of direct rule would at least put those checks and measures in place at Westminster which we are currently not seeing."

He was also concerned at the lack of political accountability of local civil servants in the absence of Stormont.

In recent days David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has written to politicians expressing his concerns about a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Swann said he felt this was a worrying development.

He added: "I don't think it was his place to do so. Civil servants should be there to take direction from politicians.

"In the situation we find ourselves in, civil servants are trying to do their best, but they need to be careful."

But he added: "In the hiatus that we have, with neither our own ministers nor direct rule ministers, I suppose he took the responsibility on himself to issue that warning."

Mr Swann said his party was focused on the forthcoming local government elections in May, but warned that the "dysfunctionality" at Stormont cannot be repeated in council chambers.

He also voiced concern at the way the Brexit negotiations were going.

Mr Swann added: "The Prime Minister seems to be simply running down the clock to March 29 - and we are going to be faced with a situation where we must accept her deal or no deal at all.

"In the UUP we have been consistent in saying that we think a no-deal Brexit will be bad for the UK, but will be significantly worse for Northern Ireland."

Today's conference is expected to be the last attended by party veteran Jim Nicholson in his capacity as an MEP.

Mr Swann paid tribute to his four decades of service, adding: "Jim's contribution has been immense."

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