Beware the British government's direct rule by stealth - Brian Feeney

The huge civil service apparatus at Stormont is but a twig on the branch of government that is the London-based NIO, headed by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris

ON February 5 2010 the British and Irish governments published the Hillsborough Agreement reached with the Stormont parties. It covered the establishment of the Department of Justice, parades, and unfinished business from the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown had spent a couple of days arm-twisting the divided DUP into the deal after years of stone-walling. Most of it was delivered quickly. The parts that weren’t fell after the British general election in May 2010 which ushered in 13 years of Conservative back-pedalling on the Good Friday Agreement.

Fast forward 10 years to 2020, to the last genuine attempt by the two governments to broker a deal to jump-start Stormont. That quickly turned out to be the New Decade, Same Approach con job because its British author, Julian Smith, was sacked within a month.

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Johnson’s government had no intention of complying with the deal and indeed Smith’s successor, Brandon “I will break international law” Lewis, ratted on it within six weeks. Ditching the Stormont House agreement on legacy, agreed with the Irish government in January 2020, was par for the course.

Smith had gone against the prevailing view in the Conservative government which had swerved increasingly English nativist since Brexit. British sovereignty was paramount, international agreements infringed that sovereignty and need not be honoured.


Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney (left) and Secretary of State Julian Smith presided over the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire


The Good Friday Agreement was one of those. Theresa May’s government had been side-lining the GFA since 2017 by not holding regular British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meetings or, if they did meet, giving the Irish a frosty, uncooperative reception. Unilateral action by the British reached preposterous levels under Johnson’s Brexit negotiator David Frost.

Part and parcel of this obsession with parliamentary sovereignty was (and is) hostility to devolution settlements agreed by Labour in the 1990s including the GFA. What that has meant in practice is by-passing devolved administrations, whether the Scottish parliament or Stormont.

Thus we’ve had, particularly since 2020, a newly assertive NIO opening a superfluous office in Belfast. Brandon Lewis filmed a ridiculous video in 2020 celebrating 50 years of the NIO. Not many viewed it. The UK government set up an office of the Department of Housing, Communities & Local Government in April 2021 which the then Stormont minister said “dismantles devolution”. Now revamped as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, it allocates levelling up money without reference to Stormont.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis at Hillsborough Castle in 2020. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Lest you forget, the huge civil service apparatus at Stormont is but a twig on the branch of government that is the London-based NIO. The NIO permanent secretary (you probably don’t know her name) is the person who has the final say about here. When the proconsul goes to the head of the civil service here and tells her to start searching for ways to raise revenue, he will first have consulted the NIO.

As he takes on more and more powers unilaterally without consulting the silent, supine Irish government, make no mistake, this is creeping direct rule by stealth. It began before Stormont collapsed and is becoming pervasive.

The latest move is to order the Department of Health to open consultation on free hospital car parking. Now you might have views for or against, but it’s a policy unanimously passed by the Stormont assembly. Have no doubt the proconsul intends to overrule it.

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Now, introducing new measures is one thing, but overruling measures democratically passed by the assembly is quite another dimension. The same applies to hints about introducing prescription charges, abolishing free transport, both policies introduced at Stormont. Recently the proconsul has floated plans to lift the cap on the rateable value of houses, thereby raising rates dramatically.

Bear in mind that the guy doing this represents no one here. Nor does the rotten, failing government he’s a member of. At least the secretary of state for Scotland is a Scottish MP. There’s another hallowed principle involved here. No taxation without representation.