Europe News

DUP calls for Northern Ireland direct rule in 'very near future'

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the British parliament urged the British government on Thursday to institute direct rule of Northern Ireland “in the very near future”, saying otherwise its economy would be left to drift.

The British government took a step towards imposing direct rule for the first time in a decade on Wednesday by announcing preparations to set Northern Ireland’s budget from London after talks on forming a regional executive collapsed.

While Prime Minister Theresa May is reluctant to impose full direct rule for fear of antagonizing the Irish government and Northern Ireland’s large Irish nationalist minority, her government is dependent on the DUP’s 10 votes in parliament to remain in power.

And many fear a move to direct rule for the first time since 2007 would further disturb a political balance between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists, already upset by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

A move to direct rule would sideline the DUP’s main rival Sinn Fein, which seeks a united Ireland with no British governing role in the north. The party does not take up its seats in the London parliament.

“At some point in the very near future we will need to have ministers, and if they are not Northern Ireland executive ministers ... then it would have to be ministers from here,” Nigel Dodds told the British parliament.

“And they will have to take decisions because we cannot allow the economy to drift and we cannot allow Northern Ireland to drift,” he said. The DUP, he said, had been urging the British government to impose a budget.

Direct rule would likely create a conflict with Dublin, which says Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace deal gives it the right to a role in the running of Northern Ireland in the event of direct rule.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told May in a phone call overnight there could be no return to direct rule “as it existed prior to the Good Friday Agreement,” his office said. May’s office did not mention the demand in a statement about the call.

Irish Nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British DUP have shared power in Northern Ireland for a decade under the terms of the 1998 peace agreement, which ended three decades of violence that killed 3,600 people.

But Sinn Fein pulled out in January, complaining it was not being treated as an equal partner, and on Wednesday blamed the DUP for the collapse of talks on forming a new executive.

Dodds said Sinn Fein was to blame for introducing a series of unacceptable preconditions that were not included in a deal between the parties last year.

Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Janet Lawrence