Sam McBride: Karen Bradley must decide – is it direct rule or drift?

In the absence of devolution, neither Karen Bradley nor Theresa May appear to have any clear strategy for Northern Ireland.''Photo; Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.
In the absence of devolution, neither Karen Bradley nor Theresa May appear to have any clear strategy for Northern Ireland.''Photo; Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

The incinerator judgment will not stop all Stormont decision-making.

Routine operational decisions which would not normally involve ministers – such as paying public sector salaries or fixing pot holes – will continue as normal.

However, decisions which would normally go to ministers – which one former Stormont minister estimated at about 10 a week in his former department – will no longer be able to be taken without the likelihood that the courts can overturn them if someone challenges what has been done.

There will, however, be some exceptions to that, particularly if there is a threat to life or some overwhelming public interest argument in favour of a decision being taken.

While the decision not to appeal is unlikely to have been what Karen Bradley wanted, it will be welcomed by some business people who now believe that only direct rule – although they are wary of using that phrase – can provide certainty in the absence of Stormont.

When asked earlier this month if civil servants should appeal the Court of Appeal ruling, a senior business figure told me that “quite a lot of business people didn’t want them to appeal the original [High Court] verdict because by doing so you take it off the secretary of state’s in-tray for a few weeks”.

Mrs Bradley has insisted that she is prepared to take decisions necessary to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland, and her preference is to do that by individual acts of direct rule rather than taking complete responsibility for Stormont departments.

If she sticks with that policy – and meets her commitment to provide good government in the absence of devolution – this decision means that she will now have to take a deluge of decisions, with each one being cumbersomely taken through Westminster by legislation, clogging up Parliamentary time on what ought to be routine executive decisions.

If she does that, the distinction between acts of direct rule and full-blown direct rule will become stretched until it threatens to break.

But if she doesn’t, it will mean a conscious decision to allow this period of drift to continue. That will have implications which will last for years, even if now we only see the tip of the iceberg of Stormont decisions which have piled up over more than 500 days of ministerless departments.