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The North

Still no clarity on an election date in Northern Ireland, what's going on?

The NI Secretary has faced criticism for failing to provide clarity on whether he will call an election.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Nov 2022

northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-before-speaking-to-the-media-outside-erskine-house-belfast-he-denied-his-decision-not-to-call-an-election-immediately-was-a-u-turn-i-am-still-going-t Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris before speaking to the media outside Erskine House, Belfast on 28 October Alamy Stock Photos Alamy Stock Photos

A 24-WEEK DEADLINE for forming a functioning assembly and powersharing executive in Belfast following May’s election ran out at midnight last Friday.

The UK Government now assumes responsibility to call an election within 12 weeks.

However, frustration has been building in recent days as Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris failed to set a date for a new poll last Friday, despite repeatedly warning that he would do so the minute a legislative deadline for calling the poll passed.

Speaking in Belfast this afternoon, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that he had met with Heaton-Harris but that “no decisions have been made yet”.

“So we don’t have we don’t have clarity on a way forward, as of yet,” Coveney said.

“But certainly, we’re not going to have to wait weeks for that clarity and both of us agreed that.”

So, why hasn’t an election date been set yet?

Let’s take a look.

As a quick recap, what happened with the May election?

An Assembly election on 5 May saw Sinn Féin displace the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland – the first time a nationalist party had come out on top.

The result meant Sinn Féin was entitled to the first minister’s post, with the DUP in line for the deputy first minister’s role.

However, the DUP maintained its block on the operation of a fully functioning executive and refused to nominate a deputy first minister.

That made the formation of a new ministerial executive impossible.

The DUP also blocked the election of a new Assembly speaker – a move that prevented the legislature at Parliament Buildings sitting.

Why was there a deadline on Friday?

Prior to the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement, a failure to fill the roles of first and deputy first minister within seven days of the first post-election sitting of a new assembly saw the UK Government assume a legal duty to call another election within a reasonable timeframe.

While this was the legal position following the March 2017 snap election (triggered by the resignation of the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness), the UK Government never actually called another election – instead opting to bring forward legislation that pushed back the requirement to call a poll during what became a three-year powersharing vacuum.

New Decade, New Approach was the deal that restored powersharing in January 2020. It included provisions aimed at creating a greater degree of stability at Stormont in the event of another executive implosion.

It removed the seven-day “cliff edge” for forming a new administration and replaced it with a maximum timeframe of 24 weeks. The agreement also allowed departmental ministers to remain in post for those 24 weeks.

That deadline ran out on Friday.

At that point, the UK Government assumed responsibility to call an election within 12 weeks.

parliament-buildings-aka-as-stormont-in-belfast-uk Stormont, Belfast Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

But why has an election not been called yet?

That remains unclear.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris yesterday offered no further clarity on when or if he intends to call an election in the region. After meeting with the leaders of the main Stormont parties in Belfast, Heaton-Harris said he would provide an update on what steps he intended to take next in “due course”.

He said: “I had conversations with party leaders today and expressed how disappointed I am that under current legislation the legal duty now falls on me to call an election. I listened to the party leaders’ various views on calling that election.

“There are important issues of government to be dealt with due to the absence of ministers.

“I am particularly worried that the Executive has an enormous black hole in its budget, which potentially has serious implications for the delivery of many of Northern Ireland’s public services.

“Measures to set a budget will be required in the short term.

“I will provide a further update on next steps in due course.”

Although an election technically does not have to be called for immediately and only has to be called within the next two weeks, Heaton-Harris is now facing criticism for failing to set an election date as he has repeatedly warned that he would do so as soon as the deadline passed on Friday.

left-to-right-emma-little-pengelly-sir-jeffrey-donaldson-leader-of-the-dup-and-gordon-lyons-leaving-following-the-dup-meeting-with-northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-at-erskine-house (left to right) Emma Little-Pengelly, Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, and Gordon Lyons leaving following the DUP meeting with Chris Heaton-Harris yesterday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What have the Northern Ireland parties said about the delay?

Sinn Féin and the DUP have both expressed frustration at Heaton-Harris’ failure to offer clarity on an election during their respective meetings.

Speaking after their meeting yesterday, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said the Secretary of State did not explain his “bizarre U-turn” in not immediately setting a date for an election.

“We’ve asked him a number of questions, but I have to say (he) provided no clarity, he provided no further information as to the U-turn,” she said.

“We’re left with no information in terms of what happens next, or at least what he intends to do next.”

O’Neill said it was “very clear” that Heaton-Harris was now under a legal obligation to call an election.

“He did not colour in the lines today. He certainly did not provide any clarity around what he intends to do next, apart from to say that he’s here to meet with people,” she said.

sinn-fein-vice-president-michelle-oneill-and-connor-murphy-speaking-to-the-media-outside-erskine-house-belfast-northern-ireland-after-meeting-northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-mr-heato Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill and Connor Murphy speaking to the media outside Erskine House, Belfast Northern Ireland after meeting Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris yesterday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson also said he was in the dark about whether an election would be called.

“At the moment, neither we nor the people of Northern Ireland know if and when an election will take place,” he said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said her meeting with Heaton-Harris was “constructive”, and that he was “taking time to reflect” before making any decision on an election.

“From our perspective, we welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has listened to what’s been said by the people of Northern Ireland, that he has paid attention to the issues that have been raised and he is clearly taking time to reflect on the way forward,” she said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said that Heaton-Harris had “no plan on how we proceed”, and that calling an election would be “nonsensical”.

“There is a dearth in thinking about what we could do and it’s really difficult to see how we broker anything unless we have some form of a pathway to deal with the issues that are put in front of us,” he said.

The Northern Ireland Secretary is due to discuss the situation with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney today.

Heaton-Harris’ failure to set a date has also prompted Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, to apologise to election workers who are on stand-by to assist on the basis that polling day will be 15 December.

So, in short, the UK government is under a legal obligation to call an election within the next 12 weeks, but it remains unclear as to when that date will be set.

Includes reporting by Press Association

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