In accordance with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed by a power-sharing executive, with ministerial positions allocated according to vote share and the first minister and deputy first minister appointed by the largest unionist and largest nationalist party respectively.
The Northern Ireland executive collapsed in January 2017 when the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned over the DUP’s role in the Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal. Since then, Northern Ireland has been governed without ministers, with the Northern Ireland civil service undertaking the day to day running of the administration, but without the ability to make policy decisions.
Direct rule means that the UK government takes over direct responsibility for government decisions in Northern Ireland, with ministers in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) directing the Northern Ireland civil service.
Direct rule has been imposed on a number of occasions since 1999 when the Northern Ireland Assembly was established and devolution returned. It was first imposed in February 2000 as a result of concerns that the IRA was not decommissioning its arms as promised. Devolution was suspended again twice for 24-hour periods in 2001 to allow the parties more time to form an executive.
The longest period of direct rule since 1999 was between 2002 and 2007; the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended following a breakdown in relations between the two parties, and following the 2003 Assembly elections, the parties failed to form a government.
When direct rule was imposed in 2000, the UK Parliament passed the Northern Ireland Act 2000, (Section 1 imposed direct rule). The Assembly could not meet, conduct business or pass legislation. Ministers, junior ministers and committee chairman and deputy chairman also ceased to hold office. Junior NIO ministers were given control of a number of Northern Ireland departments.
The UK government had the power to legislate for Northern Ireland by Order in Council – a type of secondary legislation – on any area that had been within the devolved competence of the Assembly as per the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This power could not be used in relation to reserved or excepted areas.
The draft Orders in Council needed approval in both Houses of Parliament before they could come into force unless the secretary of state advised that they were urgent, in which case they required approval within 40 days of being made.
The Act enabled the secretary of state to make a “restoration order” resuming devolution, but it also gave the secretary of state the power to revoke that order so that Section 1 came into force again. The UK government used the Act to resume devolution and impose direct rule on a number of occasions between 2000 and 2007.
As part of the St Andrews Agreement, which paved the way to restoring devolved government in 2007, it was agreed that the 2000 Act would be repealed. Therefore, to suspend devolution and impose direct rule again requires new primary legislation.
As Prime Minister, Theresa May acknowledged that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, imposing direct rule may be necessary. The new government has not ruled out; Michael Gove said in March that it was a “real possibility”.
In evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee, the then Cabinet Office Minister, David Lidington, said that either emergency legislation in more than one area would be needed, or the secretary of state would need to be given new powers in Northern Ireland.
Westminster does not need to impose direct rule to legislate in devolved areas; it has already been legislating for Northern Ireland in the absence of a Northern Ireland executive, including passing annual budgets.
However, suspending devolution and imposing direct rule would allow UK ministers to direct Northern Ireland departments, and legislate by secondary legislation, rather than needing to take new primary legislation to respond to every crisis.
This is particularly important for the government – as the passage of the new Executive Formation Act showed, any new legislation can be hijacked to add additional provisions. MPs added provisions on abortion and same-sex marriage as well as measures to ensure regular parliamentary sittings in October.
The most obvious option would be to pass legislation similar to the 2000 Act, suspending devolution and allowing the secretary of state to make Orders in Council in all areas of Northern Ireland’s devolved competence.
It is also possible that legislation could create delegated legislation powers for the secretary of state in some, but not all, areas of Northern Ireland’s devolved competence without suspending devolution. But UK ministers would not be able to direct Northern Ireland departments as they would still technically be responsible to local ministers, even if there are none in post.
The Irish government has no constitutional role in direct rule. However, the Good Friday Agreement recognises the Irish government’s “special interest” in Northern Ireland, and contains arrangments for the Irish government to put forward view and proposals on non-devolved matters through the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
These arrangements have been controversial with unionists in the past, but are considered insufficient by nationalists; Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) favour a “joint authority” arrangement where Northern Ireland is co-governed by the UK and Irish governments.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said in March that in the event of no deal the UK government would “start formal engagement with the Irish government about further arrangements for providing strengthened decision making” in Northern Ireland.
Direct rule would not be needed if the power-sharing executive were re-stablished. Talks have been taking place since murder of journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019 but although there are reports of progress, there is as yet no decisive move to re-establish power-sharing and views are mixed on whether the amendments to the Executive Formation Act make that more or less likely.