Sam McBride: Karen Bradley desperate to avoid taking charge of Stormont

It is indicative of the absurd situation in which Northern Ireland finds itself that it was even necessary for senior judges to spell out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of unfettered civil service rule where mandarins can act as ministers with no opportunity for the public to vote them out.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service, having been put in a difficult position by the refusal of either local parties or the national government to govern, attempted to construct an argument that it could just keep taking significant and controversial decisions on the basis that there is no one else to take such decisions.

Some officials may have wondered at the wisdom of mounting such an argument, given that it delayed a moment of truth which could not be stalled indefinitely: At some point, and however high the bar is set, ministers are necessary.

Now the courts have conclusively put a limit to civil servants’ attempts to step into the ministerial breach.

In doing so, judges have effectively passed the problematic parcel to the desk of Karen Bradley. It is her decision not to implement direct rule – something which Parliament could pass in an afternoon – which has left civil servants in this position.

There is still no hint that the government is considering that option, despite it until last year having been widely assumed by all sides to have been the only alternative to devolution.

There is at least one alternative, which would involve Westminster passing legislation to explicitly give civil servants the powers to take ministerial decisions.

That may seem a palatable way to continue the pretence that devolution is in some ways still alive. But it would be an unmistakable departure from the most basic democratic principles.