Court ruling leaves no alternative to direct rule: Wilson

Campaigners against the incinerator and politicians celebrate Monday's victory in the High Court
Campaigners against the incinerator and politicians celebrate Monday's victory in the High Court

A DUP MP has said there is “no alternative” to the UK government taking direct control over Northern Ireland in the absence of devolution at Stormont.

Sammy Wilson’s claim comes after Monday’s ruling in Belfast High Court, when a judge blocked a decision by a senior civil servant to approve a controversial waste incinerator plant in Co Antrim.

The landmark judgment could have major ramifications for how Northern Ireland’s rudderless public services are run amid the ongoing power-sharing impasse.

In the wake of the ruling, Sinn Fein’s national chairman Declan Kearney has renewed calls for the re-establishment of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC).

But Mr Wilson lambasted this suggestion as “nonsense” and urged the government to introduce direct rule.

The BIIC, set up as part of the Belfast Agreement, is tasked with promoting bilateral co-operation on matters of mutual interest between the British and Irish governments, including, in particular, issues in relation to NI.

Speaking on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Mr Kearney said the High Court ruling “highlights the absolute imperative” of re-establishing the BIIC “to ensure we have requisite political oversight for our process in the absence of the political institutions”.

He added that the “scope and remit” of the body should be re-examined.

Dismissing Mr Kearney’s suggestion, East Antrim MP Mr Wilson told the News Letter: “The BIIC is a talking shop. It can only bring forward views and proposals on non-devolved issues, so you would have to change the terms of the Belfast Agreement if you were to give it decision-making powers.

“If you are going to reopen the agreement, as Sinn Fein has suggested, then the best solution would be to remove Sinn Fein’s veto on the formation of a government, rather than give more powers to the Irish government.”

Mr Wilson said the only option left on the table is for the UK government to bring forward legislation that would allow for direct rule to be implemented.

“It is not the solution that the DUP particularly desires, but there is no alternative,” he added.

Senior civil servants in NI have been taking the majority of decisions within departments since Stormont collapsed 16 months.

While the UK government has stepped in on occasion to make significant cross-governmental decisions, such as setting a budget and enabling the collecting of rates, the civil service has effectively been in charge, as Stormont exists in a limbo land between devolution and direct rule.

However, Mrs Justice Keegan, presiding in a judicial review case, found that Peter May, the permanent secretary of the Department for Infrastructure, did not have the power to approve the planning application for the £240 million incinerator facility on the old Hightown quarry site near Newtownabbey.

She said such a decision should have been made by elected ministers.

David Sterling, the head of the NI Civil Service and the man running Stormont amid the impasse, is now assessing the impact of the judgment.

A spokesman for Mr Sterling and The Executive Office said: “We are considering the judgment.”