The UK government has U-turned on plans to call an election in Northern Ireland before Christmas after recognising that a fresh vote will not end months of political deadlock in the region.
Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland secretary, had indicated that he would call an election on December 15 after the legal deadline to restore Stormont’s power-sharing executive passed last week.
But on Friday, he backtracked. “No assembly election will take place in December or ahead of the festive season,” Heaton-Harris said in a statement after days of talks with political parties, business leaders and the Irish government.
Most had told him that unless the UK and EU can resolve their differences over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, a fresh poll only risked further hardening opposition to the trade deal in the region.
“No election pre Christmas is welcome and creates space for progress on other matters,” Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, tweeted.
The Democratic Unionist party, the largest pro-UK political force, has boycotted Stormont institutions since May to press for sweeping changes to the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which it says undermines the region’s status as part of the UK.
However, Heaton-Harris failed to spell out how he expected to resolve the prospect of political limbo in the region in the months ahead.
“Current legislation requires me to name a date for an election to take place within 12 weeks and next week I will make a statement to parliament to lay out my next steps,” he said.
Under current rules, an election must be held by January 19 at the latest, meaning it would have to be called by early December.
In the absence of a breakthrough on the protocol, “new emergency legislation to make the calling of an election at the discretion of the secretary of state, and possible consideration of an election same day as local elections [next May] . . . would be my forecast”, said Jon Tonge, politics professor at Liverpool university.
Westminster will now have to pass a budget for Northern Ireland. Heaton-Harris has also been considering cutting legislators’ pay because of the political paralysis.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said a “razor sharp focus on getting a solution” to the protocol was needed, either through negotiations between London and Brussels, or by passing a bill giving London sweeping powers to scrap parts of it that is currently before the House of Lords.
“There is no solid basis for a fully functioning Stormont until the Northern Ireland protocol is replaced with arrangements that unionists can support,” Donaldson tweeted. Talks between the EU and UK on the protocol have yet to make substantive progress.
Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first minister-in-waiting from the pro-Irish unity Sinn Féin party, called the UK government’s U-turn “bizarre”.
Lord Peter Hain, a former Labour Northern Ireland secretary, told BBC Radio Ulster that fixing the protocol problem was “frankly a doddle” compared with the once unthinkable challenge of getting the DUP and Sinn Féin to share power in 2007 after five years without an executive.
Under current rules, Northern Ireland’s traditional unionist and nationalist parties must share power, but each side can veto the institutions, as Sinn Féin did from 2017-20.
“The key thing that we need to see now is reform of the institutions to ensure that they are fit for purpose in terms of the modern world,” said Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Alliance party.