Wednesday, November 09, 2022

By David Young, PA

The British government is set to extend a deadline for holding an election in Northern Ireland and cut the pay of Stormont Assembly members.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is due to make a statement to the UK parliament later on Wednesday outlining his next steps in response to the powersharing crisis in the region.

A failure to form a ministerial executive following May’s election has placed a legal responsibility on the British government to hold a poll by January 19th.

Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled out a December election and asking voters to head to the polls in January would present significant logistical challenges, as it would involve a campaign that runs through the festive period.

The PA news agency understands the Secretary of State will extend the current January 19th deadline by six weeks, with an option to extend it by a further six weeks.

It is understood he will move to reduce MLA pay by around a third.

Mr Heaton-Harris is also set to give extra powers to Stormont civil servants to enable them to run the region’s rudderless public services.

He is also expected to confirm plans to pass a budget for Stormont.

The moves expected to be announced later on Wednesday will require legislation to be laid and passed at Westminster.

It is understood Mr Heaton-Harris briefed the Stormont parties on his intentions on Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday Downing Street said the restoration of powersharing was an “absolute priority” after the issue was the first item on the agenda at a Cabinet meeting chaired by prime minister Rishi Sunak.

A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an executive being formed in Belfast.

The region’s largest unionist party has made clear it will not countenance a return to powersharing until the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are scrapped.

Negotiations between London and Brussels aimed at securing changes to the protocol are continuing, with both sides talking up the prospect of a deal.

Extending the deadline would increase the likelihood of the talks producing something substantive ahead of any election date.

If a deal on the protocol was secured that convinced the DUP to return to a devolved executive the Government would likely come under further pressure to ditch plans for an election altogether.

The UK and Irish governments are both keen to avoid a scenario where Stormont remains in limbo next April when the 25th anniversary of the historic Belfast/Good Friday peace agreement will be marked.

Existing legislation gave the Stormont parties almost six months to form an executive following the last election in May, which saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party for the first time.

The deadline to establish a new executive lapsed on October 28th, at which point the British government assumed a legal responsibility to hold a fresh poll within 12 weeks.

Despite repeatedly vowing to set an election date the minute the deadline expired, Mr Heaton-Harris backtracked on his pledge, prompting Stormont parties to accuse him of a U-turn.

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