Civil servants will remain in charge of Northern Ireland until at least mid-January, unless the UK leaves the EU without a deal, according to legislation introduced this week.
A statutory instrument laid before parliament yesterday gives the Northern Irish political parties until 13 January to navigate a power-sharing agreement to restore the Northern Ireland Executive.
The deadline to put locally-elected ministers in place was the end of yesterday, under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act.
The extension of the deadline “has the effect, among other things, of ensuring that Northern Ireland departments can continue to make decisions… in the absence of executive ministers,” Westminster’s Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith said in a statement yesterday.
Civil servants have been running Northern Ireland for more than 1,000 days since a power-sharing agreement between the two main political parties collapsed in January 2017.
“The expiration of this legal period without an executive in place, and in the absence of other decision-making legislation, would leave Northern Ireland in an unacceptable position,” he said.
In a Commons debate on restoring devolution yesterday, Smith praised officials for the way they had fulfilled this role.
“I pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. They have been the most dedicated civil servants, pushing forward across a range of areas without political decision making. They do have some powers and political decision guidance under the Act, but these are inadequate; we need to get Stormont back up and running to ensure that they have the political direction they need.”
However, the statutory instrument will only maintain what has become the status quo in Northern Ireland over the last 21 months if the UK either remains in the EU during that time or leaves the union with a withdrawal agreement.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of the government’s no-deal Brexit planning, confirmed yesterday that Westminster would take over the day to day running of the Northern Ireland government in a no-deal scenario.
“Direct rule, which I know is a step that no one should take lightly, will be required in order to ensure that the Northern Ireland civil service gets the political and ministerial direction that it needs,” he said.
Gove’s statement was in line with previous comments he had made in his previous role as environment secretary in March. In a Commons debate just two weeks before the UK first planned to leave the EU on 29 March, Gove said: "We, in the circumstances that the house voted for no deal, would have to start formal engagement with the Irish government about providing strengthened decision-making in the event of that outcome, and that would include the very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule.”
Smith also said in September that Westminster would impose direct rule on Northern Ireland “at the earliest opportunity” if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.
In yesterday’s debate, Smith said he was “disappointed that the political parties have been unable to reach an agreement to get Stormont back up and running before this legal deadline”.
“But extending this legal deadline has no bearing on my continuing efforts to restore the executive, which will continue in the days and weeks ahead.”