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Northern Ireland Deadlock Continues With Election Deadline Delayed Until Spring 2023

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive since February (Alamy)

4 min read

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton Harris has announced that the deadline for fresh assembly elections in the region will be pushed into early 2023 to allow more time for the Executive to be restored.

Heaton Harris said on Wednesday that the government will legislate to postpone a fresh vote after widespread backlash against plans to hold elections in the run up to Christmas, confirming a PoliticsHome report from Monday.

Speaking in a House of Commons statement, the secretary of state admitted that the "vast majority of those I have spoken to think that an election at this time would be unwelcome".

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive since February due to the Democratic Unionist Party's ongoing protest against the post-Brexit arrangements for trade with the rest of the UK. The government had previously said it would call an election within 12 weeks of 28 October if the Executive had not been restored by then. However, all of Northern Ireland's political parties strongly opposed the plan and had urged Downing Street to think again. 

The Cabinet minister said the deadline would initially be extended by six weeks to 8 December, with the option of a further six-week extension to 19 January. This means that fresh Assembly elections could take place as late 13 April, because the whole 12-week period is being delayed. 

Heaton Harris told MPs that the extension "aims to create the time and space needed for talks between the UK and EU to develop and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible".

The government will be keen to resolve the impasse long before mid-April 2023, however. The month will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, with President Joe Biden expected to visit the region. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotiations between Johnson's government and the European Union as a way of avoiding a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It did so, however, 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. 

There is growing optimism that the UK and EU will agree to a revised version of the protocol in the next few months after many months of failed negotiations. Sources on both sides say the mood has improved significantly since Boris Johnson's departure as prime minister.

Heaton Harris confirmed that he would take steps to address "serious budgetary issues" caused by the lack of a fully-functioning Executive, including cutting the salaries by a 27.5 per cent for MLAs, Northern Ireland's equivalent of MPs.

"Before leaving his post, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister highlighted a £660m in-year budget black hole, but there are no longer Ministers in the Executive to address this," he explained. 

"Civil servants do not have the legal authority to tackle these issues and in the absence of an Executive, I must take limited but necessary steps to protect Northern Ireland’s public finances and the delivery of public services.

"So, as has been done before, the legislation I introduce will also enable Northern Ireland Departments to support public service delivery; make a small number of vital public appointments, like to the Northern Ireland Policing Board; and address the serious budgetary issues mentioned already."

He added: "People across Northern Ireland are frustrated that MLAs continue to draw a full salary whilst not performing all of the duties they were elected to do. I will thus be asking for the House’s support to enable me to reduce MLAs’ salaries appropriately."

The DUP came second in Assembly elections held in May, with nationalist party Sinn Fein coming first, but blocked the formation of an Executive over their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Under Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements, set out in the 1998 peace deal, 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.

Labour's Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Kyle said he supported the decision to scrap plans for a pre-Christmas election but urged Heaton Harris to explain what the government would do with the weeks ahead to get Stormont back up and running.

"The government wasted the last six months, so what will they do with these extra weeks they have bought themselves? If the coming period is to be fruitful, something different needs to happen."

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