Top civil servant moves to Ulster post amidst talk of direct rule

The News Letter reports that whilst Karen Bradley has convened yet another round of cross-party talks aimed at re-establishing devolution in Northern Ireland, evidence is mounting that the Government is preparing for direct rule.

First David Sterling, the head of the Northern Irish civil service – which is currently running the Province on auto-pilot absent any democratic masters to whom to report – told the House of Commons that “ministerial intervention” was needed if the Executive could not be re-constituted.

More significantly still Sue Gray, one of the most powerful people in the civil service and the so-called ‘sleaze buster’ who investigated Damian Green, is moving from the Cabinet Office to take over the Northern Irish Department of Finance. It writes of her Ulster connexion:

“Much remains unknown about the 60-year-old, who in the 1980s took a strikingly unorthodox career break to run a pub in Newry, a hotbed of IRA and security force activity.”

The Northern Irish Office is also recruiting a senior official to deal with two very controversial issues which, under devolution, are not its responsibility: same-sex marriage and abortion.

James Brokenshire’s stint as Secretary of State was hugely undermined by the Government’s apparent unwillingness even to contemplate direct rule, which gave him no leverage against Stormont’s recalcitrant parties. This week’s announcements might start focusing minds amongst DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs.

Meanwhile Gregory Campbell, a Democratic Unionist MP, has described a meeting with Bradley as “useful”. His party has actually called for direct rule, although the strong preference amongst its Assembly group and leadership would almost certainly be for the devolved institutions to return (on the right terms).

May wades into row over SNP’s policy on the Union Flag

The Prime Minister has intervened in a mounting row over the Scottish Government’s decision to bar public buildings from flying the Union Flag during royal events, the Scotsman reports.

A bizarre row over the changes has been unfolding on Twitter. Critics claim they are new; the SNP that they have been in place for years and that people simply hadn’t noticed. Now a spokesperson for Theresa May has stepped in to press the Nationalists on the point (the use of ‘Executive’ is a nice touch):

““It’s up to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Executive to explain the reasons behind their decision,” the spokesman said. “The Prime Minister thinks [the Union flag] is an important symbol of our Union, and the Union is something that she believes in fiercely.””

In other news, the Times reports that an “overwhelming majority” of Scots believe that students from the European Union should start paying tuition fees after Brexit. Currently EU rules require that they be treated as domestic students, creating the situation whereby students from the rest of the UK pay fees in Scotland but those from overseas do not.

Welsh Liberal Democrat accused of costing taxpayers thousands to save Jones

Kirsty Williams, the sole remaining Liberal Democrat in the Welsh Assembly, cost the taxpayer more than £5,000 when she cancelled an overseas visit that clashed with a crucial vote, according to the BBC.

Williams serves as Education Secretary in Carwyn Jones’ Labour-dominated administration in Cardiff Bay. Her cancelled visit coincided with a vote, forced by the Tories, on bullying allegations against the First Minister. The Welsh Conservatives have called the emails “a rare glimpse under the bonnet of the Welsh Government’s spin machine”.

Andrew RT Davies is also gearing up to try to defeat Jones over the “spiralling” cost of a road building project, Wales Online reports. Plaid Cymru have suggested that there may be an opportunity to defeat the Welsh Government in the Assembly if there is a vote on the future of the M4 relief road, whose cost currently stands at over £1.4 billion.

DUP dismissive of legal challenge to pact cash

The Democratic Unionists have dismissed threats by Gina Miller, the activist-litigant behind the Article 50 case, to mount a legal challenge to the Government’s deal with the Party for £1 billion of additional spending in Northern Ireland.

She wound down an earlier threat to take them to court after being told that the fund would be subject to Parliamentary authorisation. However, the learned this week that some of the money is already being spent, with ministers planning to seek ‘effectively retrospective’ approval next month instead.

The DUP insist that “anyone with an understanding of Parliamentary convention and practice will be satisfied that all proper procedures are being, and will be, followed.”

Elsewhere, a slightly strange alliance is brewing between Northern Irish unionists and Scottish nationalists in support of a bridge between the two countries.

Such a connexion – more practical than a tunnel due to the conditions of the North Channel – has long been a dream of many unionists as a way of better integrating Ulster into the rest of the United Kingdom, whilst its nationalist supporters tout it as a vital link in a ‘Celtic powerhouse’.