The UK government has issued a veiled warning that it will consider direct rule from London for Northern Ireland unless the region’s largest unionist party soon ends its boycott of the power-sharing executive.
Steve Baker, minister for Northern Ireland, on Thursday urged the Democratic Unionist Party to “build up the victories” it had won over new post-Brexit trade rules for the region and return to the Stormont assembly, where civil servants are fighting to plug huge budget holes.
“Clearly, we cannot allow things to continue for much longer. . . because it is not a tenable basis to ask officials to make difficult decisions without ministers in place,” Baker told BBC Radio Ulster.
“But equally, we are well aware that direct rule would be an extremely serious step,” he said, adding that the DUP it must “seize this moment” on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of conflict and established power-sharing on April 10, 1998.
London has made it clear that it wants to see a restoration of decentralized institutions, but the DUP has blocked the formation of an executive for almost a year. He maintains that the new agreement windsor framewhich according to London and Brussels eliminates many of the problems with the original post-Brexit trade rules, does not go far enough.
Although the deal introduces a customs-free “green lane” for goods from Britain destined to remain in Northern Ireland, some EU rules will still apply, hurting the region’s place within the UK, according to the DUP.
His boycott of Stormont comes as Northern Ireland’s finances are in crisis. The region has recouped some of the £660m overspending it racked up last year, but must pay off a £300 million loan from London.
In the absence of an executive, Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s secretary for Northern Ireland, said he would set a budget soon, but warned it would be “difficult”.
Officials are preparing for spending in some departments to be cut by 10 percent, putting further pressure on services in a region that already has the longest waiting lists for health services in the UK and some of the lowest incomes.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Conor Murphy, of the nationalist Sinn Féin party, which is the largest in the region, said it would be a “punishment” budget.
Baker said the crisis was “the product of many years of financial mismanagement” compounded by political instability, with Stormont suspended for four of the past six years.
Northern Ireland received around 20 per cent more funding per capita than the rest of the UK, he added, and had “the expectation of bailouts”.[and]. . . the product of many years of putting off difficult decisions like health care reform.”
The Irish government insists there can be no return to direct rule, which ran from the 1970s until the Good Friday Agreement, and says it would have to be more involved in the region’s affairs.