Karen Bradley has said that the Northern Ireland Office is “absolutely ready” to implement direct rule in Northern Ireland in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit.
The secretary of state was speaking yesterday as she attempted to explain the prime minister’s claim on Monday that one of the reasons for delaying Brexit was that there was no Stormont administration.
Appearing before the Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mrs Bradley said she was “surprised it was a surprise to people” that Theresa May had said that.
Mrs Bradley said that under a no-deal Brexit “we would consult the Irish government about what form of decision-making was needed”, implying that this consultation was part of the reason for delaying Brexit to which Mrs May had referred.
The committee’s Tory chairman, Andrew Murrison, put it to Mrs Bradley: “This has been going on for two years now – all this work surely should have been done by now?”
Mrs Bradley insisted: “I don’t think it would be fair to categorise this as work that’s not been done. The work has been done. We are ready in the event of no deal ... the Northern Ireland Office is absolutely ready to go.”
But she said that “there are steps that would need to be taken” such as passing legislation at Parliament to formally implement direct rule.
Pressed around the form of direct rule envisaged, she said that direct rule ministers could be appointed, but then said “it could be a different form” and added: “We would need to enter into discussions with the Irish government.”
At another point, Mrs Bradley said she was “not saying categorically” that there would be direct rule in the event of a no-deal.
Mrs Bradley set out many of the problems with direct rule, presenting it as an unattractive prospect.
She warned that it would involve a return to Northern Ireland legislation passing by ‘orders in council’ – a process which would involve even less parliamentary scrutiny than is the case at present.
In that context she said that “the form of direct rule [would be] ministers appointed from Westminster, ministers appointed from existing departments – we don’t have new ministers; it would be ministers who would be taken from other departments in Westminster because there’s a maximum number of ministers that can be appointed under the law”.
Clarifying that comment, an NIO spokesman said that there was no plan for part-time ministers, whereby Whitehall ministers would have a Stormont portfolio added to their responsibilities. He said that if direct rule was implemented then there would be a team of full-time ministers, but they would have to be taken out of existing ministerial roles in London.
Throughout her time before the committee, Mrs Bradley repeatedly used phrases such as “we need to have ministers back in Stormont” or “the answer is to restore devolution” when faced with difficult questions about what she is doing to ensure good governance in the absence of Stormont.
Mrs Bradley came under considerable pressure at the committee, but insisted that she is enjoying her job.