Karen Bradley's most recent comments are just the latest example of a government which thinks it can pick and choose when it comes to Northern Irelandby Sarah Creighton / March 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Thousands protested in London at the weekend against Brexit, while nearly 5.2 million signed an online petition to revoke Article 50. Yet while people marched, few noticed Northern Ireland’s chances of a functional government slipping further away.
Northern Ireland has been without a government for nearly two and a half years since Martin McGuiness collapsed the Assembly over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. There have been talks—and talks about talks—but no sign that the Assembly is going to be up and running any time soon.
On the 21st March, Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley stood at the House of Commons dispatch box and faced a mostly empty chamber. Despite the lack of attention, she did something significant.
Last year, there was a legal ruling that restricted the ability of Northern Ireland civil servants to act without a Minister. On the back of that uncertainty, the Secretary of State introduced legislation to clarify the law.
In that legislation is a provision which states that Secretary of State has a legal duty to call an election if Northern Ireland Executive Ministers aren’t in post before the end of March. One imagines that the government hoped that Northern Ireland’s political parties would have resolved their issues by then.
The legislation allows the Secretary of State to extend the deadline for calling an election by five months. On the 21st, Bradley did just that.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Bradley said, “I do not consider it appropriate to extend the period for any less than the five months. A shorter period could risk now allowing sufficient time for a talks process to conclude.”
The Secretary of State’s words are absurd for many reasons. There haven’t been talks between political parties in Northern Ireland in over a year. There is no indication that any talks are going to take place in the near future. When Bradley met the parties individually in November last year the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood said the meeting was “a complete and utter waste of time.”
It’s no surprise that the decision to extend the deadline for an Assembly election was greeted with derision in the Commons chamber. An irritated Nigel Dodds dared Bradley to do something “radical.”