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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Secretary says Assembly election will be called but does not set date

The DUP has refused to re-enter power sharing, meaning an executive could not be formed.

NORTHERN IRELAND SECRETARY Chris Heaton-Harris has said that he will call another Assembly election, but did not give a date for when it will be held.

Politicians had until midnight last night to get an executive in place, but a meeting of Stormont yesterday failed to see a Speaker elected, or first and deputy first ministers.

Speaking today, Heaton-Harris said he will provide an update on calling an election next week, adding that talks with all parties will continue.

“I am deeply disappointed we are where are are now. This is a really serious situation. As of a minute past midnight last night, there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services do continue and to protect the public finances. But there is a limit to what the Secretary of State can do in these circumstances.”

Heaton-Harris also told reporters he could rule out any joint authority approach.

“I also want to address those who have talked about joint authority,” he said.

“It is something that we will simply not consider. It is not based on the consent mechanism that is threaded through the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. So we are where we are. I have limited options ahead of me.”

Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the parties and will meet with them again next week.

“I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election,” he added. So you’ll hear more from me on that particular point next week.

“Nearly all the parties who have been saying this won’t help the situation actually signed up to the rules that make this situation happen. Why call it now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”

He also denied his decision not to call an election immediately was a U-turn.

He said he understood that the “big impasse” for the unionist community was the ongoing issues with the protocol.

“But as I continually say, the atmosphere in those talks is completely changed in recent weeks and I am optimist and I really do believe that we can get somewhere on those too,” he added.

Commenting on the announcement, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said it is “deeply regrettable that it has come to the point where the Secretary of State is under a legal obligation to call an election”.

“This is due to a political choice by one party to block the formation of the Executive, and to prevent those MLAs elected in May from exercising their fundamental democratic role,” he said.

“My position, and that of Irish Government, remains unchanged. I want to see an Executive formed in Northern Ireland and, separately, I want to see early substantive progress in the EU-UK talks.”

Coveney said he spoke to Heaton-Harris yesterday and today, adding that they will remain in close contact.

Powersharing has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister Paul Givan in an escalation of its campaign against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The party vowed to boycott Stormont until decisive action was taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Protocol means Northern Ireland is effectively still in the EU customs union, and unionists have protested the separation this creates between the North and the rest of the UK.

The DUP refused to nominate a deputy first minister, making the formation of a new ministerial executive impossible.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson maintained that his party were “given a clear mandate” in the May Assembly elections.

He added that his party “would not nominate ministers to an executive until decisive action is taken on the protocol”.

However, Sinn Féin vice-president and Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said those watching yesterday’s proceedings would have been “bewildered”.

“Most of us here want to do the job we were elected to do,” she said.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the people of Northern Ireland are suffering without a devolved government, describing public services as “on their knees” or “teetering on the brink”.

While the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said his party “is not responsible for that mess,” he added: “I’m ashamed by it, I’m ashamed by this place.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie described proceedings as “farcical” and said the attempt to elect a speaker was “never going to pass”.

With reporting from Press Association

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