The civil servants who are running the Northern Ireland Executive are not in a position to take the “proactive decisions that are needed on public services or the economy” in the run up to Brexit at the end of October, the Northern Ireland secretary has said.
In a parliamentary debate yesterday, Julian Smith said a no-deal Brexit on 31 October would lead to the imposition of direct rule in the province “at the earliest opportunity”.
Answering an urgent question on how the planned prorogation of parliament next month would affect governance in Northern Ireland, Smith said the continued role of civil servants in running the executive should end.
The arrangement that has been in place since power-sharing arrangements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed in early 2017, with officials running the administration in the absence of ministers.
Smith said he would publish a report on Monday, before parliament is prorogued, to update MPs on the progress of talks to restore the executive.
“Throughout the period ahead, I will be doing everything I can to support and encourage talks to succeed,” he said. “Democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland are best placed to take the decisions needed to support hospitals, schools and the police. I've seen the excellent work of civil servants in Northern Ireland over the last few weeks, but they cannot of course take the proactive decisions that are needed on public services or the economy in the run-up to 31 October.”
If the talks do not lead to the successful re-establishment of the executive, Smith said that the government would “pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity”.
Fellow government minister Michael Gove has previously said that the government could re-impose direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit, although he acknowledged that this would be “a grave step”, especially difficult in the context of no deal.
Speaking in his previous role as environment secretary, the now Cabinet Office minister overseeing no-deal Brexit planning said in March: "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.”
David Sterling, the head of NICS, has previously said the power vacuum is putting his 23,000 staff in a “difficult” position.
“In the absence of a functioning assembly, the normal means of accountability don’t operate and that has inevitably thrust us more into the public spotlight – a position that I don’t think civil servants should be in,” he told CSW in an interview in May.
“It’s not that I think the civil service should shy away from publicity, but I think it should be for ministers to explain and defend policy. We, in the absence of ministers, have had a higher public profile and that’s been difficult at times.”