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Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Alamy Stock Photo Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.
# Stormont
Voters in the North set to return to the polls for second time in seven months
A deadline for forming a new powersharing executive has lapsed, with an election due in December.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 28th 2022, 9:15 AM

VOTERS IN NORTHERN Ireland face the prospect of returning to the polls in December, a little over seven months after the last Assembly election.

Politicians had until midnight on Thursday to get an executive in place.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had repeatedly said that he will call for an assembly election to be held within 12 weeks if that deadline was missed.

The parties were recalled to the assembly yesterday, just hours before the deadline, but there was no progress on electing a Speaker, or first and deputy first ministers.

It means another election is due to be held in December, with 15 December the likely date.

But how did we arrive at this latest political turmoil at Stormont.

What caused the latest powersharing impasse?

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 region’s largest unionist party vowed to disengage with the devolved institutions in Belfast until decisive action was taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr Givan’s resignation automatically ousted Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, as powersharing rules mean one cannot hold office without the other being in post.

Other departmental ministers remained in position, but the wider executive was unable to meet and major policy decisions could not be taken.

How did the picture change in May’s Assembly election?

The scheduled Assembly election on 5 May saw Sinn Féin displace the DUP as the largest party the North – 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.

What has happened since May?

The DUP has maintained its stance – meaning an executive has not been formed and the Assembly and its associated scrutiny committees have been unable to meet to undertake normal business.

Prior to a recent law change, the failure to nominate first and deputy first ministers following an election would have left Northern Ireland without any ministers in post.

However, rule changes delivered by the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement enabled departmental ministers from the previous mandate to remain in post (as long as they were re-elected as MLAs).

That has essentially led to a continuation of the post-February status quo – with all ministers, apart from the first and deputy first ministers, continuing in their jobs.

Those ministers have been severely hamstrung in the decisions they can take, and any significant executive-wide policy moves, such as passing a budget, have not been possible.

Why was there a deadline to form an executive?

Prior to New Decade, New Approach, 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 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 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 24-week period ran out midnight.

As a result, the sitting ministers will now be removed from office and the Government will assume responsibility to call an election within 12 weeks.

While the Government could do what it did between 2017-20, and amend the legislation to push back the election deadline.

However, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had previously made clear he will call an election if the deadline passes without an executive having been formed.

Speaking earlier this month, Heaton-Harris said he couldn’t “see the space” for any emergency legislation to avert an election should an executive not be formed.

Now that the deadline has been breached, it’s understood an election will take place on 15 December.

What has been the political reaction?

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 additional reporting from Press Association

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