Direct rule ministers appointed in Northern Ireland in a no-deal scenario would only focus on the short-term impacts of Brexit, Karen Bradley has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said the Government would not take on wider policy matters in the region, such as education and health reform, if it intervenes in the wake of a “chaotic” EU exit.
She said enhanced decision-making powers would be needed at Stormont to deal with the “unknown unknowns” that may occur if the UK leaves without an agreement.
Giving evidence to a Westminster committee, Mrs Bradley said she could “weep” when she thinks about the negative impact a no-deal could have on people in Northern Ireland.
The Conservative MP told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the Government could only move to change decision-making arrangements in the region once it had consulted with the Irish government, due to its obligations under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Members of the committee pressed her on no-deal plans following warnings from Prime Minister Theresa May and other ministers that a form of direct rule may be required.
Mrs Bradley said enhanced decision-making powers would be needed and that may involve the appointment of direct rule ministers.
She added: “I think we have to be clear, if we were in no-deal and we had to take some form of direct rule, that would be to keep business as usual going on.
“It would not be about taking policy decisions with regard to reforming health, education etc.
“It would be to deal with the short term impacts of no-deal and making sure that people were able to continue to get to school, to work, the hospitals continued to function, that medicines were available to people as needed.
“That’s the kind of things that we would be focusing on in that scenario.”
On the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland, Mrs Bradley told members she intended to convene a “short focused set of talks” between the region’s rowing parties in the window after May’s local council elections and the summer parading season.
On the prospect of a no-deal, Mrs Bradley told North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon: “I could sometimes weep when I think what might possibly happen to people that can be entirely avoided if we come together and vote for a deal and get out of the European Union as the people of the United Kingdom asked us to deliver, but do so in way that is not chaotic, that is orderly and protects their livelihoods and their security.
“I think we all have to think very carefully as individual parliamentarians of the role we can play in doing that.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary repeatedly made clear that the Irish government would have to be involved in the discussions about direct rule. She said that “consultation” would be in line with the approach set out in the 1998 accord in respect of Dublin’s role in Northern Ireland’s affairs.
“We have an international agreement that we have signed as a country which says this is the way decision making happens in Northern Ireland and it happens through devolved institutions,” she said.
“That is what both governments have signed up to. Changes to that, changes to the way decision-making is required will require consultation and discussions with the Irish government.”
Mrs Bradley was pressed by DUP member Ian Paisley on the Prime Minister’s claim that Northern Ireland was not properly prepared for a no-deal.
Mr Paisley compared those remarks on Monday with previous statements by Mrs May and other ministers that said the Government was prepared. He suggested the Government was “making it up as it goes along”.
The Secretary of State insisted the Northern Ireland Office was well prepared and was “ready to go” in the event of a no-deal.
She said the Prime Minister was referring to issues outside of the Government’s control, such as the response of Ireland and the EU in the event of a no-deal.
“There will always be in a no-deal situation unknown unknowns, where things happen that nobody could plan for,” Mrs Bradley said.
She added: “We can do everything we can unilaterally – and we have and we are – but there are things that we cannot deal with because they are matters for different sovereign governments.”
The Secretary of State said without ministers in place, decisions could not be taken to spend money to mitigate against problems that may arise in a no-deal.
“That is the point that the Prime Minister was making,” she said.
“It is not a question of being not prepared, we are prepared, but we don’t have ministers in place to take those (mitigation) steps.”