Northern Ireland

What differences would direct rule bring to Northern Ireland?

Stormont
Image caption A financial crisis at Stormont could see direct rule return to Northern Ireland

John Simpson began working as a Stormont civil servant at the same time Northern Ireland was returned to direct rule from London in 1972.

"The first few days there was a lot of mutual suspicion with people from London coming in trying to tell us what to do," the well-known economist said.

"Now there won't be quite the same disadvantages if it happens this time. But on the other hand it's a shaking experience for local politics.

"They're told to stay at home. It's (also) a challenging experience for civil servants who have to work to tighter Treasury rules and I hope within a few weeks it would settle down."

So why have the memories come flooding back? Because John Simpson is one of a growing number of people who view the developing financial crisis at Stormont and wonder whether handing back control to Westminster for a period wouldn't actually be beneficial.

"In the present circumstances a period of direct rule would do things that the local politicians find unpalatable - not just welfare reform, but that would be the major one.

"In that sense it would be useful if we were given, as it were, a breathing space when we could put things right," he told the BBC's The View.

Since Willie Whitelaw flew in to take charge in 1972, Northern Ireland has had 18 secretaries of state, all but the last three have been responsible for the running of the place during periods of direct rule.

It was hoped those days are over, but relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein have become increasingly fraught.

And the news that the head of the civil service has warned the Treasury that the Northern Ireland Executive is due to go into the red by the end of this financial year means the cash crisis at the heart of government can no longer be ignored.

So how would we fare under another period of direct rule and what would suffer?

For one thing plans to devolve corporation tax would be in disarray - bad news for those like campaigner Eamonn Donaghy who believes the move is vital.

"I don't think it would be the end of the world for those businesses that are already here. I don't think they're going to pull out of Northern Ireland," he said.

Image caption John Simpson said a return of direct rule would be a shaking experience for Northern Ireland politicians

"But for those businesses that are thinking of coming to Northern Ireland, that added uncertainty as to what's going to happen next week, next month, next year is going to be a factor (that) they're going to weigh up as to whether they're going to come and invest here and certainly that negative message of no government, uncertainty about the future, is going to weigh heavily on their minds if they're going to decide to invest in Northern Ireland."

And what of the hard pressed health service, that already needs another £130m to keep it running?

According to John Compton, former chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, we might not notice much difference.

"I've certainly found working with local ministers, they always want to make the change; they all try to make the change, they all want to improve the health and social care," he said.

"I didn't find (it) much different, to be honest, with direct rule ministers. There's a theory sometimes that it's easier if the direct rule minister doesn't have the local political constituency to deal with they can take a decision.

"My experience is that that's overstated to be quite honest.

"You can equally construct an argument to say that it becomes more indecisive because they know in the end it's only a temporary arrangement and they're not prepared to take the real big decisions because they know at a point in time in the future it will be transferred back."

However, most concern might focus on the peace upon which the political institutions are based.

Dr Cillian McGrattan, of the University of Ulster, said: "We have seen that people on the extremes of republicanism and loyalism do retain the capacity to cause enormous destruction and loss of life potentially, so I think any political vacuum facilitates opportunists and that's something that perhaps we should be concerned about."

Westminster sources say that talk of collapse is "alarmist".

But at Stormont some people talk of taking a "devolution holiday." No-one admits to wanting one, but at least its somewhere they've been before.

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