After admitting to a parliamentary magazine that she hadn’t understood how the North of Ireland is divided politically, British Direct Ruler Karen Bradley has introduced legislation at Westminster to halt Six County Assembly elections until 2019.
A judicial review before the High Court in Belfast this week could have ordered Bradley to hold an Assembly election, which has been due since April 2017. The new law legislation will now mean there is no requirement for a Stormont vote until at least April 2019.
Her announcement on Thursday also brought the Six Counties a step further towards full Direct Rule from London, with civil servants given greater powers to make decisions. She also suggested the possibility of an “external facilitation” for talks -- an independent chair -- and introduced a measure which threatens to cut the salaries of Assembly members from November.
The Stormont assembly has not sat since January 2017 when it collapsed over allegations of corruption. However, assembly members have continued to receive their annual salary of #49,500. The political deadlock has left the Six Counties entirely in the hands of civil servants.
Introducing the new legislation, Bradley avoided declaring a return to full Direct Rule or the abandonment of the democratic process at Stormont.
“This will provide a further opportunity to re-establish political dialogue with the aim of restoring the executive as soon as possible,” she said.
Tony Lloyd, Labour’s spokesman on the north of Ireland, condemned what he said was “governance by judicial review”, referring to the legal dilemma which is understood to have provoked Bradley’s action. A judicial review is currently before the courts on behalf of victims of historical institutional abuse who had been promised financial compensation. One argument the victims’ lawyers are using is that the British government’s refusal to call a fresh assembly election is unreasonable.
Sinn Fein Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill said Bradley had only acted because of the imminent prospect of the courts ordering her to do so. She said it was a “retrograde step”.
“Any attempt to move away from the Good Friday Agreement or towards Direct Rule will fail,” she said.
“Clearly, the British government’s reliance on the DUP remains a central problem and if any process around restoring the institutions is to be credible, Karen Bradley must begin prioritising the rights of citizens over Tory Party self-interest.”
She said that in the absence of rights-based institutions, the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference is “the proper forum to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, to resolve the issue of rights and to address the oversight of the political process.”
Separately Ms Bradley, from Staffordshire in northwest England, revealed that she had no understanding of the North of Ireland when she was appointed to her role in January.
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” she told the Westminster parliament’s ‘House’ magazine.
Mrs Bradley, who ironically has the sole power to call a border poll on Irish reunification under legislation dating from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, said: “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland -- people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa. So, the parties fight for the election within their own community... That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”
She added: “That is so incredibly different and it’s when you realise that, and you see that, that you can then start to understand some of the things that the politicians say and some of the rhetoric.”
The comments have drawn cynicism and derision. Sinn Fein said they were a reminder of where the North comes in the British government’s priorities, but Downing Street insisted that the prime minister, Theresa May, retains confidence in Ms Bradley.
Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Ms Bradley had “really made an effort to understand Northern Ireland” since taking the role.
“She didn’t have a lot of experience of Northern Ireland before being appointed there, but she’s an experienced, very smart politician,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s former Stormont finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said he had gone “beyond being shocked by the British government’s ignorance of affairs” in the North. “When it comes to appointing their representative in Belfast, the only requirement was that that person would take the orders of Theresa May, who of course is taking her orders from the DUP.”