Mon, 28 November 2022

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Northern Ireland Election Deadline Set To Be Delayed Into 2023

Northern Ireland Election Deadline Set To Be Delayed Into 2023

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris in Belfast (Alamy)

3 min read

The government is preparing to extend the deadline for fresh assembly elections in Northern Ireland after widespread backlash against plans to hold a vote before Christmas.

Ministers have decided to postpone a possible election until next year, PoliticsHome understands, with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris set to announce details to Parliament on Wednesday. The government would need to legislate to delay the date.

Northern Ireland is facing the prospect of a second election in the space of less than 12 months due to the Democratic Unionist Party's ongoing refusal to form a government over the post-Brexit protocol. The government previously said it would hold an election within 12 weeks of 28 October if Northern Ireland's parties had not formed an Executive by that point.

One option being looked at is extending the 28 October deadline by six months. This could mean that an assembly election could take place as late as on the same day as UK local elections – 4 May – if the Executive is not restored before then. 

However, the government would prefer for the Executive to be restored before then because US President Joe Biden is expected to visit Northern Ireland in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Biden has previously expressed frustration at the political deadlock caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. 

Heaton Harris said last week he would not be going ahead with plans to hold an election in December after the region's political parties and other stakeholders expressed strong opposition to it.

Northern Ireland has not had a functioning Executive since February after the DUP walked away from Stormont in protest against the post-Brexit protocol for the region. The DUP came second behind nationalist party Sinn Fein in the assembly elections held in May but blocked the formation of a government for the same reason. Under Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements, the region's largest unionist and nationalist parties share the most senior ministerial positions and there can be no government without the approval of both.

Heaton Harris, who Prime Minister Rishi Sunak kept as Northern Ireland Secretary after he was appointed by Liz Truss, is also expected to confirm details of a new budget for Stormont as the region faces the prospect of several more months without an Executive. This is set to include cutting the salaries of Members of the Legislative Assembly, PoliticsHome understands.

The announcement will likely boost hopes that the UK and European Union are close to finally reaching an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The mood between the two sides has improved since the departure of Boris Johnson as prime minister, but sources say there is still a lot of work to be done on the substance of the negotiations before a deal on how to alter the treaty is agreed. 

Speaking on Monday, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Sunak said: “There are still discussions at official level but I’m not aware of anything moving to a more elevated stage."

Sunak is expected to attend the British Irish Council Summit on Thursday, The Scotsman reported. He would be the first UK prime minister to do so since Gordon Brown.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotiations between Johnson's government and the EU as a means of avoiding a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. 

It did so by creating new barriers to trade in the Irish Sea, which staunch unionists like the DUP say has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. 

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