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Chris Heaton-Harris PA

NI Secretary Heaton-Harris extends deadline for election to March with option to cut MLAs' pay

The Northern Ireland Secretary has already ruled out a December election.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Nov 2022

NORTHERN IRELAND SECRETARY Chris Heaton-Harris has announced he is to extend the deadline for calling a fresh Stormont election by six weeks, with an option to extend it by a further six weeks, and also cut the pay of Assembly members.

It means the current 19 January deadline will be further extended and, assuming this second extension is not availed of, an election would need to take place before 2 March.

The Northern Secretary made the announcement to the House of Commons this afternoon, when he also confirmed he would be asking for support to enable him to “reduce MLA salaries appropriately”.

It also emerged that Heaton-Harris will give extra powers to Stormont civil servants to enable them to run the region’s rudderless public services.

The moves will require legislation to be laid and passed at Westminster.

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

The previous date for an election was expected to be 15 December.

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

“When so many are concerned about the cost of living in Northern Ireland, I know the public there will welcome a further measure I intend to address,” the Northern secretary said this afternoon.

“People across Northern Ireland are frustrated that the members of the legislative assembly (MLA) continue to draw a full salary whilst not performing all of the duties they were elected to do.

“I will thus be asking for this House’s support to enable me to reduce MLA salaries appropriately.”

However, he also said there is “legitimate and deep concern about the functioning of the Northern Ireland Protocol”, particularly among the unionist community.

And he said that although he was obliged under the New Decade, New Approach agreement to call an election within 12 weeks of October, he noted that the “vast majority” of people he had spoken to think that an election would be “most unwelcome”.

“What people would welcome is having their devolved institutions up and running,” Heaton-Harris added.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the extension of the period during which Northern parties could still form an executive.

“My view on this has been clear and consistent.  The people of Northern Ireland need functioning institutions, working to improve their daily lives,” he said.

“The Secretary of State’s announcement provides further space for early substantive progress in discussions between the EU and UK on the issues of most concern to people and business in NI.

“I urge the UK authorities to make use of this renewed opportunity to engage positively, and with real urgency, in the knowledge that the European Commission has listened carefully to the concerns of people across Northern Ireland, including and especially unionists.”

But reacting to the secretary’s announcement earlier, senior DUP member Edwin Poots said cutting the salaries of MLAs would have absolutely “no influence whatsoever” on his party’s stance on boycotting Stormont until changes are made to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“The issue for us is a principle, so cutting wages is neither here nor there in terms of the position that we adopt, it will have no influence whatsoever on our position,” the South Belfast MLA told BBC Radio Ulster.

“Should they entirely take the salaries away, that’s entirely up to the Secretary of State, but what he really needs to focus on is finding a solution to the problem that has been created.”

Poots also compared European Parliament laws that could impact Northern Ireland as “legislation without representation”.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long welcomed “clarity” from the Northern Ireland Secretary but said said it has not changed the “pressing need for reform of the institutions”.

“Today’s clarity from the Secretary of State is welcome, particularly around the powers of civil servants relating to finances, given the perilous state of our public services,” she said.

“Any further drift would have made an already rudderless ship even more unstable However, the overall picture has not changed. As long as any one party can take the institutions hostage, they will.

“Therefore we need reform of the Assembly and executive to stop that happening, or else we could easily be back in this same situation again in a matter of months.”

December election ruled out

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

This extension could increase the likelihood of EU-UK negotiations producing something substantive ahead of any election date.

Yesterday Downing Street said the restoration of powersharing was an “absolute priority”.

The political vacuum at Stormont was the first item on the agenda at a Cabinet meeting chaired by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday.

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.

Local elections are already scheduled to take place on 4 May in Northern Ireland, which led to speculation that the vote could be used for an Assembly election as well.

However, that would have meant that Stormont would still be in limbo in April, when the 25th anniversary of the historic Good Friday peace agreement will be marked.

Heaton-Harris is already set to table legislation at Westminster in the coming weeks that would pass Stormont’s annual budget in the absence of devolved ministers.

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


SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood said he welcomed the move to cut MPs’ pay and said everyone’s focus must be on restoring institutions to deal with the challenges facing people in the North.

The Foyle MP said the idea of an election should be put to one side and the DUP should return to Stormont to deal with the issues impacting families.

“With the Secretary of State having pushed the idea of an election and the prospect of a deal between the British government and the EU on the Protocol getting closer every day, the DUP has no excuse for continuing their boycott of the Stormont institutions.

“They have no justifiable reason for hanging about while people’s homes get colder and their cupboards get emptier,” he said. 

“I welcome the move to cut MLAs pay, let me be clear – SDLP MLAs want to be at Stormont every day working to deal with the huge number of issues impacting people in our communities, but while they are prevented from doing a key part of their jobs and so many families here are struggling, we understand the frustration the public is feeling.”

He added that the DUP are “rapidly running out of road” and that” it’s time they respected the democratic decision of the electorate in May and got back to work”.

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