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Suzanne Breen: Shambolic incinerator U-turn begs question of who runs Northern Ireland

Karen Bradley

Plans to locate a massive incinerator in any community are guaranteed to cause uproar among local residents. But the fall-out from the Mallusk proposals extends far beyond the host community.

Yesterday's High Court judgment didn't just overturn the original decision to give the go-ahead to the £240m waste facility.

It has left the whole system of government in Northern Ireland in chaos and confusion.

And civil servants - generally the most conservative, cautious and publicity shy of all the players in political life - have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being in the spotlight once again.

The message from the High Court's 19-page ruling seems to be that the status quo that has existed at Stormont since the collapse of power-sharing in January 2017 is untenable.

Mrs Justice Keegan ruled that the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Infrastructure, Peter May, hadn't the power to approve the Mallusk incinerator decision. She said it was one which should have been made by elected ministers.

Since the collapse of power-sharing, Northern Ireland has limped on in political limbo, with civil servants in the decision-making driving seat.

If their role is now in doubt then who, if anyone, will make the key calls now? There is almost zero chance of a power-sharing Executive being up-and-running this year.

Previous rounds of talks ended civilly enough, but the Valentine's Day bust-up didn't. There is little trust between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Devolution, in the short-term, is a non-runner.

Unionists want Secretary of State Karen Bradley to reintroduce direct rule.

There are obvious precedents. Westminster reimposed direct rule for four months in 2000, twice briefly in 2001, and from 2002-2007 when devolution was suspended.

Nevertheless, Mrs Bradley is very unlikely to do so again. Such a move would deeply anger Dublin, Sinn Fein and the SDLP and blow the chances of re-establishing power-sharing in the medium-term.

The two options the Secretary of State is likely to consider are far less dramatic. She could change the law to allow civil servants to make decisions normally taken by ministers. Or she could just continue to seek approval in Parliament for herself to take key decisions on devolved matters, as she did when she asked for the legal power to reduce MLAs' pay.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been vehement in calling for the imminent convening of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Stormont sources say this is highly unlikely.

While the potential exists for legal challenges to past decisions taken by civil servants from January 2017, and to future ones, the Department for Infrastructure itself is likely to appeal yesterday's ruling.

Civil servants will of course now be cautious about proceeding with the gas-fired power plant in Belfast's Harbour estate and the GAA's Casement Park projects.

The wheels of change always moved slowly in Northern Ireland. They'll be even more sluggish unless Mrs Bradley takes radical action.

But judging by past experience, London will continue to let the situation drift - regardless of the price ordinary folk here pay.

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