Friday, January 20, 2023

The final deadline for power-sharing in Northern Ireland passes without a breakthrough

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The UK government has once again taken on a legal obligation to snap assembly election in the region within 12 weeks.

Northern Ireland Minister Chris Heaton-Harris made it clear that he would not make any announcement about a possible election date for at least several weeks.

He has given himself time to consider options in the hope that in the meantime the Government and EU can reach an agreement on the issue at the heart of the power-sharing impasse – the Northern Ireland Protocol to Brexit.

If a deal goes through that convinces the DUP to return to Stormont, the government could legislate to avoid the need for a new election.

The ongoing DUP bloc against the way power-sharing works in protest of the protocol has kept the Stormont institutions on the move since the last general election in May.

The ministerial executive collapsed three months earlier when the DUP retired his first minister.

Mr Heaton-Harris has expressed hope that a breakthrough in EU-UK talks on Irish Sea trade can provide a solution that will facilitate the return of power-sharing.

On Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris and other UK ministers met Irish government counterparts for a meeting of the UK-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.

As for his next steps, he said: “I will be speaking to all parties concerned.

“You will know that important talks between the UK government and the European Union are also being held in Brussels.

“And if we can solve one problem, maybe we can solve another.

“So I think it’s worth taking the time to weigh my options.”

Tanaiste Micheal Martin said the DUP had an obligation to drop her Stormmont boycott, regardless of what emerges from the EU-UK talks on the protocol.

The Tanaists also attended Thursday’s government meeting.

“Notwithstanding these talks about the DUP, I believe there is an overriding obligation to fulfill the mandate of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“And I believe passionately that elections should of course be followed by the convening of an assembly or a parliament and a government – that is democracy at work and the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less and I deserved to have scored those points towards the DUP and other political parties.

“I raised these issues three years ago when another party’s (Sinn Fein) convention collapsed and we were absent for about three years, and that was something I, as a Democrat, could never accept.”

Election Day is normally around six weeks after an election is announced, so Mr Heaton-Harris would have until mid-March to call a poll if it is to take place before the 12-week deadline in mid-April.

That would give Mr Heaton-Harris another six weeks to see what comes out of the UK-EU talks on the protocol.

If an agreement is reached in the coming weeks and the DUP agrees to re-enter power-sharing on that basis, Mr Heaton-Harris could ask Parliament to retrospectively extend the January 19 deadline for forming an executive – meaning that the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a new election.

January 19 was the latest in a series of deadlines given to parties to revive decentralization following the May election.

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