The British government averts an about-face in the Northern Ireland elections

The UK government has reversed plans to hold general elections in Northern Ireland before Christmas after realizing a new vote will not end months of political deadlock in the region.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had indicated he would call elections on December 15 after the statutory deadline for restoring the power-sharing executive to Stormont last week.

But on Friday he backed down. “There will be no general election in December or before the bank holiday,” Heaton-Harris said in a statement after days of talks with political parties, business leaders and the Irish government.

Most had told him a new poll would only risk further entrenching opposition to the trade deal in the region unless the UK and EU could settle their differences over post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland.

“Any election before Christmas is welcome and leaves room for progress on other matters,” tweeted Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign secretary.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest pro-British political force, has been boycotting Stormont’s institutions since May to push for sweeping changes to the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which undermines the region’s status as part of the UK.

However, Heaton-Harris failed to spell out how he planned to resolve the prospect of political limbo in the region in the coming months.

“Current legislation requires me to set a date for an election within 12 weeks and next week I will make a statement to Parliament to set out my next steps,” he said.

Under current rules, an election must take place no later than January 19, which means it would have to be called by early December.

In the absence of a breakthrough in protocol, “new emergency legislation to make the calling of an election at the discretion of the Secretary of State and to consider a possible election on the same day as local elections[next May]. . . would be my prediction,” said Jon Tonge, a professor of politics at Liverpool University.

Westminster must now approve a budget for Northern Ireland. Heaton-Harris has also considered cutting lawmakers’ salaries because of the political paralysis.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said a “razor-sharp focus on a solution” to the protocol was needed, either through negotiations between London and Brussels or through the passage of a bill giving London sweeping powers to scrap parts of it which currently pending in the House of Representatives from Lords.

“There is no solid basis for a fully functioning Stormont until the Northern Ireland Protocol is replaced with agreements unionists can support,” Donaldson tweeted. EU-UK talks on the protocol have yet to make substantial progress.

Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first minister-in-waiting from the pro-Irish single party Sinn Féin, described the UK government’s about-face as “bizarre”.

Lord Peter Hain, a former Secretary of Labor for Northern Ireland, told BBC Radio Ulster that resolving the protocol problem was “frankly a no-brainer” compared to the once unthinkable challenge the DUP and Sinn Féin presented to the government in 2007 after five years without an executive to bring power.

Under current rules, Northern Ireland’s traditional unionist and nationalist parties must share power, but either side can veto the institutions, as Sinn Féin did from 2017-2020.

“The most important thing we need to see now is the reform of the institutions to ensure they are fit for the purpose of the modern world,” said Stephen Farry, vice leader of the Alliance party. The British government averts an about-face in the Northern Ireland elections

Adam Bradshaw

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