A Bill designed to create time and space for Northern Ireland politicians to reach agreement is “no substitute for devolved government”, the Democratic Unionists have warned.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley introduced the new Bill to the House of Commons on Thursday.
She described it as her “clear plan to restore devolved government”.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is intended to allow time and space for political parties to agree a return to power-sharing government.
It also gives guidance to senior civil servants at Northern Ireland departments who have been left to make decisions in the absence of ministers.
The region has been without devolved government since January 2017 following a breakdown of relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The time-limited Bill covers three areas including a five-month period during which an Executive may be formed without further primary legislation or an Assembly election.
The second section aims to give “clarity and certainty” to senior civil servants in Northern Ireland departments over taking decisions in the absence of ministers.
This comes following a legal challenge to a decision by a Department for Infrastructure official in September 2017 to approve an incinerator in Mallusk.
The High Court ruled the senior civil servant, Peter May, had no power to approve the planning application.
The Bill comes with accompanying guidance to decisions that should be taken in the absence of a minister, taking into account whether the decision is in the public interest and needed to maintain the delivery of public services.
Thirdly, the Bill allows UK Government ministers to make key public appointments in the absence of Stormont ministers. This will apply to a number of bodies including the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and Northern Ireland Policing Board (and approval of the board’s appointment of senior police officers).
The Bill is time-limited to March 26 2019. The date was agreed with political parties in recognition of political campaigning that will be happening ahead of local government elections.
It can be extended for a further five months to August 26. However, the extension is only intended to be applied if there is a genuine prospect of agreement.
The Bill is set to be debated in the Commons on October 24 and is planned to become law in November.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson described it as a “limited measure”, adding it is “in no way, a substitute for democratically elected representatives making decisions”.
“There are a number of outstanding issues which we shall seek clarity on during the passage of this legislation through Parliament,” he said.
Mr Robinson repeated his party’s position blaming Sinn Fein for the continued collapse of Stormont.
“The public in Northern Ireland are suffering because of Sinn Fein’s boycott policy,” he said.
“It is appalling one party’s decision to prioritise a narrow agenda has had an impact upon everyone living here.
“This limited measure is, in no way, a substitute for democratically elected representatives making decisions in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein has previously responded to this claim, accusing the DUP of “walking away from a deal in February”.
Alliance leader Naomi Long described the Bill as “a sticking plaster on a broken leg”.
“The Civil Service taking decisions is not in any way equivalent to politicians driving change through committees, departments, the Assembly and the Executive,” she said.
“While this legislation will effectively allow civil servants to take decisions of an urgent nature, there remain decisions which may not be urgent but are of strategic importance. If delayed, they carry with them significant implications and allow the deepening of the crises emerging across our public services, including our health and education systems.
“This Bill allows for urgent intervention, but for Northern Ireland to function properly, we need more than just a sticking plaster on what is a broken leg. The only effective and sustainable solution is for local politicians to step up and do the job they were elected to do.”
Green Party MLA Stephen Agnew has accused Mrs Bradley of “absolving herself of the big decisions”.
Legislation to allow the Sec. of State to absolve herself of big decisions is due today.
The SoS can and should deliver on:
✅HIA redress✅Ind. talks mediator ✅Marriage equality
Karen Bradley's cardboard cut out approach isn't good enough.
— Green Party NI (@GreenPartyNI) October 18, 2018
“Effectively, she’s taking those big decisions out of her in tray and shuffling them across to unelected civil servants,” he said.
“The Secretary of State can and should appoint an independent talks mediator to kick start a return to devolution.
“The Secretary of State can and should implement equal marriage in Northern Ireland through Westminster legislation – in line with the overwhelming majority view.
“Instead, we have a cardboard cut out approach to the brief – we see Karen Bradley MP now and again, but she doesn’t appear on move on or do anything.”