Joint authority Northern Ireland: NIO quizzed on why it won't repeat previous rejection of joint authority over NI
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In the past week Alliance, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Irish Taoiseach have all disparaged or ruled out direct rule from Westminster in light of the DUP boycott of Stormont.
A similar position arose in 2017, after the resignation of Martin McGuinness, when Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney ruled out “British-only direct rule”.
He was then firmly rebuffed by the UK, which responded: “We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the [Good Friday/Belfast] agreement.”
The UK government added that it was for it alone “to provide the certainty over delivery of public services and good governance in Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom. This is consistent with our obligations under the Belfast agreement”.
This week the News Letter asked the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) if it holds that joint rule is feasible - and if it considers this within the scope of the GFA? However this time it made no effort to reject the possibility.
It said: "The Government’s strong preference is to see an Executive formed before the deadline on Friday - because it is locally accountable and elected representatives in Northern Ireland that can best deliver governance for Northern Ireland.
"If an Executive does not form by the 28th the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will come under a duty to call a Northern Ireland Assembly Election.
"The Government in line with its commitments to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement will carefully consider what other steps may need to be taken in the absence of an Executive to ensure that it delivers on its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland."
DUP MLA Gordon Lyons responded that the Belfast Agreement is “entirely clear” that NI remains a full part of the UK.
"If the Government is serious about remaining committed to the Agreement, then any arrangement such as joint authority simply cannot be countenanced,” he said.
“Why they feel unable to restate that simple position is only something that can be explained by the NIO and its Ministers.
“The principle of consent is the key foundation upon which devolution has been built for unionists."
Through negotiating and accepting the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Government has “fundamentally weakened” that foundation, he added.
UUP leader Doug Beattie agreed that the difference in language used by the NIO since 2017 is “obviously for the NIO to explain and justify”.
"But for the avoidance of doubt, the Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that any attempt to impose some form of Joint Authority between London and Dublin on Northern Ireland would be the greatest possible breach of the Belfast Agreement and UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland," he said.
TUV Lagan Valley spokesperson Lorna Smyth said the term ‘joint authority’ has been “bandied about” many times over the years but that “no such plan has ever been committed to paper”.
She added: “It is a bogeyman designed to force Unionists to do things which they know are not in their interests.”
Joint authority is “legally and constitutionally impossible” she said, but would also be “a breach” of NI’s constitutional position as stated on the opening page of the GFA.