Northern Ireland news

Stormont parties to have 10 months to restore power-sharing without election

Karen Bradley greeting DUP leader Arlene Foster at the announcement of a new shipbuilding project in Belfast Harbour yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell

NORTHERN Ireland's parties will have up to 10 months to restore power-sharing under new legislation planned by the Secretary of State.

The new bill means an executive can be formed at any time during this period without the need for fresh elections.

The time-limited legislation, which is expected to come into effect next month after it is fast-tracked through parliament, aims to give civil servants clearer guidance around what decisions they can take.

Civil servants can make decisions if they feel they are in the public interest.

However, any decisions will still be made by Stormont departments, meaning the new law falls short of direct rule.

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The guidance is careful not reference any specific areas where decisions need to be taken.

But it does give clarity in some justice issues.

In the absence of Stormont ministers, British ministers can make key public appointments, specifically to the Policing Board, Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission, the Probation Board and the Police Ombudsman.

The law has been introduced after the Court of Appeal upheld a judgment in July that civil servants did not have the power to make some decisions in the absence of ministers.

Planning permission for a £240 million waste incinerator near Glengormley, Co Antrim, was approved by a Department for Infrastructure civil servant in 2017.

Following a legal challenge, the High Court held that the incinerator had been unlawfully authorised. A subsequent appeal was dismissed.

The legislation will initially run for five months until March 26, after which the Commons can be asked to pass another five-month extension until August.

After the full 10 months, Secretary of State Karen Bradley can call another election.

The 10-month extension will run over a busy political period which includes the UK's departure from the European Union on March 29 and the local government elections in May.

The bill will be debated in the Commons on October 24.

It will enable the Policing Board to appoint a new deputy chief constable after Drew Harris left to become Garda Commissioner.

Stephen Martin was named as temporary deputy chief constable in July.

It will also allow a new Police Ombudsman to be appointed after Dr Michael Maguire stands down in the summer.

Mrs Bradley said the law was part of a plan to restore power-sharing.

"At the heart of the Belfast Agreement is a devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland," she said.

"This Bill gives the best chance of delivering that.

"In the meantime, it is imperative that Northern Ireland departments have clarity so that decisions can be taken in the public interest to maintain delivery of Northern Ireland's public services in the absence of ministers, and the guidance we have published today alongside the Bill will support civil servants in carrying out their duties.

"Once this legislation is passed by parliament, it will help the political parties to use the next few months to get around the table and come to an agreement, so that the people of Northern Ireland have locally-elected government to take important decisions on their behalf."

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