Secretary of State says Stormont is ‘only option’

James Brokenshire has set that a resumption of the current power-sharing arrangements are the only way forward after Northern Ireland’s snap elections in March.

In a statement to the House of Commons, the Northern Irish Secretary said that his Department wasn’t considering any alternatives to the continuation of Stormont, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

Fresh elections were announced yesterday after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists failed to reconcile and resume their places in the Northern Ireland Executive. Under the province’s system of mandatory power-sharing, the Executive can only operate with the cooperation of the two largest parties.

Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, finally walked out last week after Arlene Foster, the First Minister, refused to step aside even temporarily to allow for an investigation into the ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ scandal, which we summarised here.

But despite Brokenshire’s bullishness, the ball isn’t really in his court.

Unless the election produces a real shock, neither the Ulster Unionists or the SDLP will overtake their respective rivals to become the largest unionist or nationalist party. Both big parties have their problems, but they seem likely to remain the big parties.

Thus any new Executive will still need the same parties as the old one – and if either of them were inclined to make the compromises necessary to get that show back on the road, it likely wouldn’t have come off it in the first place.

Still, there are a few dispiriting reasons to believe that Ulster’s devolved arrangements may lurch on: as Ben Lowry and Sam McBride (both of the News Letter) have pointed out, the province’s devolved political class draw far too much money from Stormont to long tolerate the risk of a lapse into direct rule – of which the DUP are scarcely less averse than Sinn Fein.

If not, Brokenshire had best break out some political biographies and brace himself for a much more traditional spell at the head of the Northern Ireland Office than he might have hoped for.

Davidson attacks SNP’s ‘desperate’ attempts to whip up separatist feeling

The Scottish Conservatives have gone on the offensive, calling on Nicola Sturgeon to stop trying to “exacerbate” divisions between the Home Nations and instead focus on trying to get the best Brexit possible.

According to the Scottish Sun, Ruth Davidson criticised the SNP for treating their minute-to-minute decision not to seek a rematch of 2014’s plebiscite as if it were a major concession. And she told ITV that: “There’s not a single thing the PM could have said today that wouldn’t have the SNP screaming for a second independence referendum.”

Yet Sturgeon notably didn’t call for such a re-run in the aftermath of Theresa May’s Brexit speech yesterday, despite the Prime Minister’s clear intention to leave the Single Market, instead only going so far as “all but inevitable“.

For the moment the SNP remain trapped between their decision to talk up independence after June’s Brexit vote and the lack of the widely-anticipated (but not here) polling bounce for independence that was meant to result from it. So the First Minister is still playing for time.

Welsh Assembly votes for more powers as Tories attack Labour trades union plans

The new Wales Bill has been ratified by the Welsh legislature, Wales Online reports, despite “huge reservations” from Labour and Plaid Cymru. The way is clear for the devolution of income tax powers to the Assembly, as well as control over its own electoral arrangements.

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, told AMs that his party only supported the Bill because it matched tax-varying powers with a “fair” funding guarantee. Hopefully that doesn’t mean the Welsh executive will be spared the financial implications of its own tax and spending decisions.

Meanwhile Plaid opposed the motion because it entailed a “significant roll-back” of powers, which as nationalists they believe ought all to reside in Cardiff.

Both UKIP and the Conservatives voted in favour (Tory leader Andrew RT Davies referred to the bill as a transfer of ‘sovereignty’, which of course it wasn’t), although Neil Hamilton did criticise AMs for stripping out the requirement that Welsh voters endorse tax powers in a referendum.

In other Welsh news, the Guardian reports that Jones’ administration have tabled a bill to overturn the provisions of the British Government’s Trade Union Act, undoing restrictions like strike ballot thresholds, subscription rules, and doing union business on an employer’s time.

Davies warned Labour that taking responsibility for industrial action could lead Wales towards regional public sector pay – perhaps the best argument that can really be made for it – and criticised them for trying to “pay back their union paymasters” in their very first bit of 2017 legislation.