Fresh elections to be called in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit impasse

Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar says the situation is 'regrettable'

The resumption of power-sharing at the Northern Ireland Assembly has proved out of reach. AP
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The Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris on Friday said he would call for a fresh election as a consequence of the post-Brexit impasse preventing the restoration of power-sharing in the country.

It had been widely anticipated that Mr Heaton-Harris would announce the date for an election on Friday, after a deadline to restore devolved government at Stormont passed at midnight.

Instead, he said he would give more information next week and would meet the Stormont parties.

He said he was faced with “limited options”.

Speaking in Belfast on Friday, he said: “I am deeply disappointed we are where we are now.

“This is a really serious situation. As of a minute past midnight last night, there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services do continue and to protect the public finances.

“But there is a limit to what the secretary of state can do in these circumstances.”

With no ministerial executive in place, the UK government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election.

Responsibility for running devolved departments will now pass to senior civil servants, although their powers are limited.

Mr Heaton-Harris also told reporters he could rule out any joint authority approach.

“I also want to address those who have talked about joint authority,” he added.

“It is something that we will simply not consider. It is not based on the consent mechanism that is threaded through the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“So, we are where we are. I have limited options before me.”

Mr Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the parties and will meet them again next week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris speaking to the media outside Erskine House, Belfast, denied calling the elections was a U-turn. PA

“I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election,” he added.

“So, you'll hear more from me on that particular point next week.

“Nearly all the parties who have been saying this won't help the situation actually signed up to the rules that make this situation happen.

“Why call it now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”

He also denied his decision not to call an election immediately was a U-turn.

He said he understood that the “big impasse” for the unionist community was the continuing issues with the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Democratic Unionist Party is blocking the restoration of power-sharing as part of its protest against the protocol.

The Northern Ireland Protocol allows goods to be transported across the Irish land border without the need for checks. Certain goods are checked when they enter Northern Ireland from Britain.

“But as I continually say, the atmosphere in those talks is completely changed in recent weeks and I am an optimist and I really do believe that we can get somewhere on those too,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.

Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar said the situation was “regrettable”.

Ministers in Stormont, who have been operating in shadow form since the government collapsed earlier this year, ceased to hold office at midnight.

Members of the legislative assembly met during a recalled sitting on Thursday, but a bid to elect a new Speaker — which must be done before the election of first and deputy first ministers — did not proceed as the DUP refused to support the nominations.

The session was then suspended.

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

The UK 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.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said not enough progress has been made on addressing issues of concern about the protocol.

But republican party Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the DUP “have left us all at the mercy of a heartless and dysfunctional Tory government”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also urged the DUP to get back to Stormont, hours before the deadline to restore devolution expired.

His official spokesman said: “There's still time for the DUP and executives to get back to Stormont and we urge them to do so because the people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully functioning and locally elected executive which can respond to the issues facing the communities there.”

The last Northern Ireland Assembly election was held in May, and Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party for the first time.

Updated: October 28, 2022, 5:03 PM