As the last Direct Rule Minister for Northern Ireland when the power sharing agreement collapsed I have long worried about the impacts of a no deal Brexit upon the peace process. A no deal will mean the construction of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to comply with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules – which we will have no control of as this the WTO has no elections and our parliament has no control over its direction of travel.
What complicates matters even more is that Northern Ireland has been without a Legislative Assembly for over two years and shows no signs of changing. Without ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly to take decisions locally. This means that UK ministers will have to step in to take the hourly decisions which will be needed following a no deal Brexit – which I do not want to see.
I asked the Secretary of State what action he is taking to avert this monumental mess. His answer left a lot to be desired.
We have now reached the longest period of time where Northern Ireland has been without a government. We are in a limbo without local rule and Direct Rule from Westminster and as such projects are being delayed, investment is being left unspent and decisions are not being made.
Currently, MPs can only question the UK Government on the funding settlement to Northern Ireland. Unlike other departments we cannot ask Written Questions on the outcomes of schemes in place or the management of Northern Ireland by the Civil Service. This was put in place to ensure that Westminster respected the governance structures in Northern Ireland. But as we have been so long without a government there it is time that we were allowed to scrutinise Northern Irish Civil Servants activity.
I was disappointed that the Secretary of State would not entertain this idea and I will continue to press for it.
The Northern Irish Assembly has still not reconvened due to disagreements between the parties. But the institutions in Northern Ireland are in need of a budget to continue to operate. We are getting dangerously close to having to impose direct rule once more and pass a budget in the Houses of Parliament for the people in Northern Ireland.
As one of the last direct rule ministers I wanted the Secretary of State to outline her time frame for action and also if she would consider allowing Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to be able to table questions in the UK Parliament and amend legislation if direct rule was imposed. A half-way-house that means that communities are still represented during the passage of legislation.
On Tuesday the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire MP, came to the House of Commons to announce that the negotiations, for the time being, had collapsed in trying to arrange a power sharing agreement in Stormont.
This is deeply worrying for the stability of the peace that was won. As one of the last Ministers to be involved with direct rule from Westminster I understand what is needed to return power back to Stormont under that agreements put in place.
But it needs investment of time and energy by our Prime Minister, alongside the Taoiseach, Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, to bring this stability back.
I urged the Minister to speak to the Prime Minister and ensure that she can take time out of her schedule to bring about normality in these times of tension and to stop direct rule of Westminster returning again.
The Minister agreed with me that direct rule is the last thing this government wants and will be working hard to ensure it comes about. I am dubious of this point as the Prime Minister is placing so much time and effort on Brexit that she seems to be unable to deal with any other crisis.