The British government may be planning to supplant the power-sharing Executive at Stormont with the ‘consultative committee’ set up as part of the deal with the Democratic Unionists to prop up the Tory government at Westminster, it has been warned.
British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire has been urged to clarify the exact role of Tory-DUP committee as Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist SDLP, voiced fears that it could act as an “interim executive”.
Mr Eastwood’s call comes amid continued fears about how the committee of MPs will operate and how it will handle a controversial billion pound “bung” offered up by the Tories as part of the deal to keep their minority government in power.
In a British statement it is claimed the ‘consultative committee’ will discuss and agree the handling of legislation. In a second statement from Tory HQ, however, its role is described as a mechanism by which both the Tories and DUP “can agree the funding Northern Ireland needs”.
If there is no Stormont executive due to the ongoing deadlock over the implementation of previous agreements, Mr Eastwood said it must not be replaced by the DUP-Tory committee.
And he warned if the DUP is allowed to distribute funding in the event of a direct rule scenario, there will be less incentive for the DUP to compromise to restore power-sharing.
“People in Northern Ireland voted for a broad range of parties to represent them in the assembly -- our pluralistic institutions cannot be supplanted by DUP/Tory rule,” he said.
Mr Eastwood said the consultative committee “cannot act like an interim executive”.
“The prospect that the Tories under the DUP thumb will have a free hand to spend this money, supposed to be for all of us, is a dangerous one,” he said.
“This should be an incentive to all political parties to get a deal done.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill also said it would be unacceptable for a group of Tory and DUP MPs to decide where public funds are to be spent in the north.
She said that she is similarly unclear what the committee’s remit is -- and believes the Tories and DUP aren’t entirely sure themselves.
“One thing I’m very clear on -- it’ll be executive ministers here who’ll be taking decisions where that money will be spent,” she said. “The democratic accountability needs to happen here.”
Nevertheless, she said she remained optimistic that power-sharing could be restored by Christmas.
Ms O’Neill insisted that an Irish language act had become a “totemic issue” and must be delivered. She said her party would only agree to a standalone Irish language act, but this was a “modest” demand and it would “go no further” than corresponding legislation in the 26 Counties.
“It has become an issue of people’s Irishness and of them wanting to see their Irishness protected in legislation,” she said.
Since the collapse of negotiations last month, contacts between Sinn Fein and the British government have been erratic. Last weekend, Tory environment minister Michael Gove met with senior DUP members in County Antrim, but cancelled planned discussions with Sinn Fein at the last minute.
Sinn Fein party chairperson Declan Kearney said Mr Gove had given no reason for the cancellation of the pre-arranged meeting and warned of the political fallout from DUP/Tory pact, saying it will be “more difficult to reach a resolution” over the north’s political crisis.
However, Gerry Adams held face-to-face talks with the British Direct Ruler on Monday when both were in Washington DC on separate business.
Mr Adams, who was in the US capital for a Memorial Mass for Martin McGuinness, said he requested the meeting after learning through the media that Mr Brokenshire was visiting America this week. He said he raised concerns with Brokenshire about the British government’s handling of legacy issues.
“I challenged him on his government’s cover-up and refusal to give information to victims of British actions or the actions of their allies, as well as the quite deliberate withholding of the funding the lord chief justice has asked for to allow inquests to proceed,” he said.
The Sinn Fein leader said conflict-related inquests was not solely a republican position but affected all victims of the conflict.
“I’m disappointed that it appears he is seeking to make this a negotiating position as we have refused to negotiate on it,” he said. “The right to an inquest is a very modest entitlement and should not be subjected to political negotiations - once again, this is one rule for people in the north and a different for those elsewhere in the British state.”
Mr Adams said he also challenged Mr Brokenshire on being “silent” about effigies and other offensive material appearing on a number of Eleventh Night bonfires, including a coffin bearing an image of Martin McGuinness.
“I asked him why he was silent on the antics around some of the bonfires around the Twelfth, because I’m sure he was as perplexed and outraged as anybody at the image of Martin McGuinness’s coffin being burnt on a bonfire,” he said.
The Louth TD said he did not get a “satisfactory answer to that question” from Brokenshire.
“It was obvious that like some unionist leaders, they prefer to be silent on these issues as opposed to making it very clear that this is unacceptable behaviour,” he said.
Mr Adams told hi that Sinn Fein was “ready and able” to assume its place in the Six County Executive but only the basis which his party has previously outlined - “That is on agreements broken or not implemented being dealt with in an acceptable way.”