Time-limited Bill aims to restore devolution in Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has introduced a new Bill to Parliament which she has described as her plan to restore the region’s devolved government.

The region has been without devolved government since January 2017 following a breakdown of relations between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is intended to allow time and space for political parties to agree a return to powersharing government.

The powersharing executive has been suspended since January 2017 (Niall Carson/PA)

The second section aims to give “clarity and certainty” to senior civil servants in Northern Ireland departments over taking decisions in the absence of ministers.

This comes following a legal challenge to a decision by a Department for Infrastructure official in September 2017 to approve an incinerator in Mallusk.

The High Court ruled the senior civil servant, Peter May, had no power to approve the planning application.

The Bill comes with accompanying guidance to decisions that should be taken in the absence of a minister, taking into account whether the decision is in the public interest and needed to maintain the delivery of public services.

Thirdly, the Bill allows UK Government ministers to make key public appointments in the absence of Stormont ministers. This will apply to a number of bodies including the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and Northern Ireland Policing Board (and approval of the board’s appointment of senior police officers).

The Bill is time-limited to March 26 2019. The date was agreed with political parties in recognition of political campaigning that will be happening ahead of local government elections.

The Bill can be extended for a further five months to August 26. However, the extension is only intended to be applied if there is a genuine prospect of agreement.

Mrs Bradley has described the Bill as her “clear plan to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland”.

“At the heart of the Belfast Agreement is a devolved powersharing government in Northern Ireland,” she said.

“This Bill gives the best chance of delivering that.

“In the meantime, it is imperative that Northern Ireland departments have clarity so that decisions can be taken in the public interest to maintain delivery of Northern Ireland’s public services in the absence of ministers, and the guidance we have published today alongside the Bill will support civil servants in carrying out their duties.”

The Bill is set to be debated in the House of Commons on October 24 and expedited through the House.

It is planned to become law in November.

Mrs Bradley added: “Once this legislation is passed by Parliament, it will help the political parties to use the next few months to get around the table and come to an agreement, so that the people of Northern Ireland have locally-elected government to take important decisions on their behalf.”

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