Can Northern Ireland devolution be rescued?

The scope of legislation to promote the Irish language is a roadblock in the power-sharing negotiations. Credit: PA

In most western democracies and at most times, government by unelected officials would be thought an affront to our values.

But that is a reasonable description of what has been going in Northern Ireland for more than a year, since the collapse of its devolved Government.

Since then, the British Government has desperately tried to resolve the impasse between the winners in the last Norther Ireland Assembly Elections, Sinn Féin and the DUP, so that a new executive could be constituted and devolution could be re-started.

So far, no good, and as the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling told the Norther Ireland Commons Select Committee the other day, the bureaucrats running Northern Ireland are now struggling: think about the challenges of running a public sector without an executive to set priorities or allocate funds to new projects.

Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling has said bureaucrats are struggling. Credit: PA

The roadblock, I am told, remains what it has been for some time: the scope of legislation to promote the Irish language.

DUP sources tell me they have accepted Sinn Féin’s demand for such a law, but they baulk at the idea of enforced employment quotas for Irish speakers and such proposed provisions.

The DUP seems reconciled to the idea that for a period at least, maybe six months, British ministers led by the new Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, should take back executive powers to run Northern Ireland - and that the UK Parliament should set an emergency budget for the province.

They say that engaging with Sinn Féin has become more difficult ahead of elections in the Republic - which they see as Sinn Féin’s greater priority.

These talks are so shrouded that it is impossible to know whether that it is so.

What is clear is that the stakes are high - because any resumption of rule from Westminster would carry considerable risks, especially with anxiety so acute about the impact on Northern Irish stability and security post-Brexit, and with some in Northern Ireland deeply mistrustful of the way the DUP props up Theresa May’s minority government.

Bradley believes she still has weeks to find a solution and reconstitute the executive in Stormont.

The DUP fears there may only be days.

They assume something important about what’s next will be announced at Northern Ireland questions in the Commons next Wednesday.

Even re-imposition of rule by Westminster characterised as temporary would be momentous - largely because Northern Ireland’s troubled history weighs so heavy when the whole United Kingdom is struggling to find a post Brexit settlement and identity.