Arlene Foster has again called on the government to step in and end the crisis preventing Stormont departments from taking many decisions – but the government has given no indication that it is preparing to intervene in all but a handful of areas.
On Monday the News Letter revealed that civil servants have decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court over their failed Court of Appeal case which argued that in the absence of an Executive they should be able to take decisions normally taken by ministers.
That judgment related to senior civil servant Peter May’s approval for a vast incinerator outside Mallusk, but its implications stretch into every area of Stormont decision-making which would normally involve a minister, with judges making clear that they did not believe civil servants have powers to take those decisions.
That means that there is no one who can take those decisions – because the government has opted not to introduce direct rule, meaning that it cannot give any orders to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is now answerable only to itself and to the courts.
When asked what Secretary of State Karen Bradley is going to do to ensure that decisions can be taken by Stormont departments in light of the judgment, a spokesman for the government said it would “continue to consider the implications of the court’s judgment, following the decision by the NI Civil Service not to appeal”.
He added: “We are acutely aware of the challenging circumstances and we remain fully committed to ensuring good governance in the absence of an Executive. That’s why we introduced the recent NI Budget Act to ensure stable finances and why the secretary of state has committed to taking further action on urgent public appointments.
“The secretary of state remains firm in her view that it is absolutely crucial that we secure the return of a functioning, devolved government in Northern Ireland. This will ensure the Executive can get back to the business of governing and take the strategic decisions that affect the long-term future of Northern Ireland.”
But the DUP leader again set out her party’s demand for a radically different approach, arguing that the judgment “should be a siren for the government to take action”.
Mrs Foster said: “The limbo of decision-making in Northern Ireland can no longer be ignored. Both the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, in recent days, have heard from a wide range of local voices about the need for a decision-making mechanism.
“There are fresh examples arising virtually daily where people in Northern Ireland are suffering because decisions cannot be taken. They range from school building projects to public sector pay through to reforming how our healthcare operates.”
She said that “action must be taken at Westminster”, adding: “This is not about wishing to see a return to direct rule but about the people of Northern Ireland needing decisions taken so they are not punished for the refusal to restore devolution.”
Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney – who as a local MLA had campaigned against the incinerator – welcomed the decision not to appeal to the Supreme Court.
However, he did not set out any alternative to allow for decisions to be taken if devolution cannot be restored.
Instead the South Antrim MLA said that “key decisions such as this demonstrate again the importance of re-establishing the power-sharing institutions in a way that is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement”.
The decision not to appeal was also welcomed by the UUP and SDLP, who have opposed the incinerator.
Colin Buick, chairman of local residents group NoArc21 which mounted a David and Goliath court fight against Stormont, said he was “delighted that common sense has prevailed within the upper echelons of the NI Civil Service”.