Minister tells party leaders election will go ahead if Stormont not restored

Minister Tells Party Leaders Election Will Go Ahead If Stormont Not Restored Minister Tells Party Leaders Election Will Go Ahead If Stormont Not Restored
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held meetings with Stormont party leaders on Wednesday. © PA Wire/PA Images
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By David Young, William Janes and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is determined to push ahead with calling an Assembly election if power-sharing institutions are not restored by Friday, Stormont party leaders have said.

Mr Heaton-Harris was holding discussions with Northern Ireland’s political leaders on Wednesday as a deadline for calling another election in the region approaches.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he is “ready to fight” the new election while Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the priority should be the restoration of the executive.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the election was the last thing people in Northern Ireland wanted, while Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said it would lead to further polarisation.

The Northern Ireland Secretary has repeatedly warned that he will call a Stormont poll if Friday’s deadline passes without a devolved executive being formed.


The DUP has refused to engage with the devolved institutions in Belfast in the wake of May’s Assembly election, meaning it has not been possible to form an executive.

The party’s boycott is part of a campaign of opposition to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, and it says it will not return to power-sharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr Donaldson told reporters in London there was “still some way to go” in solving the problems over the protocol following his phone conversation with Mr Heaton-Harris.

He said: “I think the Secretary of State is of a mind to call an election, that is a matter for the Government, frankly I don’t think it helps us to get any quicker towards the solution that we need or to get the political institutions back up and running and fully functioning again.

“We need to clear away the debris of the protocol, that needs to be our focus, we need to get agreement on arrangements that respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and that allow for continuing cross-border trade where that is required, and I don’t see how an election helps us to get there.


DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party was ready to fight an election (Liam McBurney/PA)

“But, to be clear, we’re ready to fight in that election, I’ve just been signing off on our election literature, we’re ready to go.

“If the Secretary of State decides to call the election I’m not afraid to take my case to the people.”

Mr Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed in his role by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, repeated on Wednesday his warning over another election, indicating that the change at No 10 has not altered the Government’s position on the issue.

Asked about the prospect of an election, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Wednesday: “That position remains that it will be triggered on the 28th. The exact date for the election will have to be set out subsequently.”

A 24-month legislative time frame to form an administration expires just after midnight on Friday.

If no ministerial executive is in place by then, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election.

Sinn Féin vice president Ms O’Neill, who would be in line to be first minister if the executive was formed ahead of the deadline, held talks with Mr Heaton-Harris in Belfast on Wednesday evening.

“The clock is obviously ticking and we’re very close to the Friday deadline,” she said.


Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill urged the DUP to drop its boycott of the devolved institutions (Mark Marlow/PA)

“My number one priority is the restoration of the executive, that should also be the Secretary of State’s priority.

“The people here deserve no less than a fully functioning executive, one that is going to get them through the cost-of-living crisis, one that’s going to fix and invest in our health service – that’s where we need to be.”

The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

Talks with the EU resumed recently, with both London and Brussels talking up the potential of reaching an agreed solution but no breakthroughs are expected ahead of the election deadline.

While the Government has the ability to amend the legislation and prevent a winter election, Mr Heaton-Harris has made it clear he will call a fresh poll if the deadline passes, with December 15 the likely date.

On Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Secretary tweeted: “My priority is for NI’s political leaders to come together and restore the executive.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully-functioning devolved government, so I understand the public’s frustration.

“However, if the parties will not re-form, I will call an election.”

Following her meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris, Alliance Party leader Mrs Long said: “He is very clear at this stage in his view that an election must be called.

“I don’t think anyone in Northern Ireland would be angry or frustrated with him if he were to listen to their voices.

“I think a lot of people see spending £6.2 million on an election at a time when we have our public finances in disarray, a cost-of-living and a cost-of-doing-business crisis, I think the last thing they want to see are politicians’ mugshots on lampposts.”

Ulster Unionist leader Mr Beattie said: “It is a bit of a mess, we have got a real problem.

UUP leader Doug Beattie said an election would stop negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol (Mark Marlow/PA)

“Being thrust into an election at this time will just harden stances, it will stop negotiations on things like the protocol.

“I just cannot understand why the Northern Ireland Office and the UK Government can’t understand that Northern Ireland is in a nuanced position, and they have to take nuanced decisions.”

The Assembly is being recalled on Thursday for a special sitting ahead of the deadline.


The sitting will see an attempt to elect a new speaker – a prerequisite before an executive can be appointed – but that bid is set to fail as the DUP will use its veto to block it.

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