UK minister in last-ditch talks to restore Stormont government | Northern Irish politics

The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is holding last-ditch talks with the region’s party leaders to try to restore devolved government and avert an assembly election.

If the meetings in Belfast on Wednesday do not yield a breakthrough by Thursday that revives power sharing, Heaton-Harris is expected to call an election, tipping Northern Ireland into further uncertainty.

Gloom is shrouding the talks because the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has vowed to continue its boycott of the Stormont executive unless the party’s objections to the post-Brexit Irish Sea border are resolved.

The impasse has raised the spectre of an election in December, which parties and voters do not appear to want, just seven months after the last one. Sinn Féin overtook the DUP as the biggest party in the May election, a landmark result, but its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, did not become first minister because of the DUP’s boycott.

The crisis has deepened a sense of political malaise in Northern Ireland and raised questions about the viability of power-sharing institutions established by the 1998 Good Friday agreement. The assembly has not functioned for four of the past six years.

Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed to his post by Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, has repeatedly said he would call an election if no executive was formed by 28 October, a legal deadline. He repeated the threat on Wednesday.

My priority is for NI’s political leaders to come together and restore the Executive.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully-functioning devolved government so I understand the public’s frustration.

However, if the parties will not re-form, I will call an election.

— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) October 26, 2022

Previous deadlines in previous crises proved malleable, suggesting Heaton-Harris could in fact delay calling an election, but he ruled that out in an attempt to manoeuvre the DUP back to Stormont. His Northern Ireland ministerial colleague Steve Baker this week urged the DUP to “choke down” its position.

The tactic has not worked. The party’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said on Tuesday that for the DUP to end its boycott, Downing Street had to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol “once and for all”.

Uniting our country – the United Kingdom means replacing the protocol with arrangements that respect & restore Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. The integrity of the U.K. Internal Market must be properly protected. This is what’s needed to secure a fully functioning Stormont

— Jeffrey Donaldson MP (@J_Donaldson_MP) October 25, 2022

British and EU negotiators are attempting to find a compromise over the protocol’s trade checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. However, any deal is thought to be weeks or months away.

The DUP’s unyielding stance has proved popular with its base, boosting the party’s belief it would perform well in a snap election. Sinn Féin seems equally confident it would match or exceed its previous result because nationalists would be motivated to keep O’Neill as putative first minister. Such outcomes would squeeze the more moderate Ulster Unionist party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP).

Naomi Long, the leader of the centrist Alliance party, said an election would cost more than £6m and be fruitless, given previous election had not stopped Stormont’s cycle of collapse and impasse.

“In 2017, the institutions collapsed in January,” said Long. “We had a snap election in March and we didn’t get back up and running till 2020. So, if you’re going to learn anything from history, it’s that an election without resolution won’t solve the problem.” Long said emergency legislation at Westminster on Wednesday could push back the deadline.

The assembly is to meet on Thursday after Alliance backed a Sinn Féin recall petition to debate the cost of living crisis. But all sides expect the DUP to use its veto to block the election of a speaker, stymying proceedings.

Business leaders said the political instability and vacuum was deterring investment and hurting jobs, as they appealed for a restoration of power sharing. Firms urgently needed rates reductions, help with energy bills and other supports, said Aidan O’Kane, the head of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. “The lack of an executive is worsening the situation for our local businesses and this should serve as a wake-up call for our local elected representatives.”

The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told the Dáil on Wednesday that a sustained period without a functioning Stormont executive would not justify a return to the type of direct rule from London seen in the past, because Dublin would expect a role. “The Irish government will fully pursue its consultative role under the Good Friday agreement,” he said.

Unionists have said they would not accept any form of joint authority between London and Dublin.

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