Stormont cannot be resurrected without fundamental reform – Steve Aiken

By Rebecca Black, PA

Devolved government in Northern Ireland is destined to collapse again unless there is fundamental reform, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has said.

Steve Aiken’s warning comes as parties prepare to re-enter political talks after the General Election with the aim of agreeing a restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

There has been no government at Stormont for almost three years following a break down in relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party.

UUP leader Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to stand aside for six weeks to facilitate an investigation into her role in a botched green energy scheme.

This prompted Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness to resign in protest at her decision – a move that precipitated the powersharing crisis, which has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for almost three years.

A public inquiry has examined how the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme in Northern Ireland left Stormont facing a multimillion-pound overspend bill.

The findings of the inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, are anticipated to be published in the coming months.

Meanwhile in the interim, numerous rounds of talks aimed at breaking the impasse have failed. A demand for an Irish language act and the reform of the petition of concern are among issues where agreement has not yet been reached.

Julian Smith Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

Last week, Secretary of State Julian Smith announced fresh talks will start after the General Election.

However, Mr Aiken said Stormont is doomed to fall again unless there is reform.

“Without fundamental reform, Northern Ireland’s Executive and Stormont will be incapable of surviving for more than a couple of months before we have another massive crisis,” he said.

“This was all caused by a renewable heating scheme, other parties want to see things like corporation tax devolved back to Northern Ireland – we can’t even run a heating scheme, we can’t even make sure our public service workers are paid the same as the rest in the United Kingdom.

“Yet with all the layers of bureaucracy we have, we are not capable of managing ourselves effectively. There has to be fundamental reform, and unless political parties can realise that, we are on to a hiding to nothing.

“We will have another set of elections, we’ll come back the way we were, we will have the same institutional problems, we need to sort that out. We need to sort that out, we can’t keep going the way we are.”

Last week, he urged Mr Smith to appoint a direct rule health minister to act over the crisis-hit health service in Northern Ireland.

However the Northern Ireland Secretary responded saying he did not think taking powers back to London is the best way to proceed.

Mr Aiken previously worked at a high level in Whitehall, and claimed that Northern Ireland is regarded as a “basket case” in London.

“There are certain departments that have more than run out of patience with Northern Ireland … there are people in the Treasury who are absolutely exasperated by how Northern Ireland is managed or not managed,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom, it wouldn’t tolerated in the Irish republic.

“And that’s the problem, unless we can restore people’s faith in local devolution and democracy, it means that the cynicism that is out there for the entire political system is going to grow and grow. That is not good for anybody in Northern Ireland of whatever background or identity.

“We need to get to the point where there is fundamental reform to make it move on.”

Mr Aiken added: “We really need to get back to the future and the Belfast Agreement, and make sure we have proper power sharing, not power apportionment.”