Northern Ireland assembly election to be delayed again | Northern Irish politics

Elections for the Northern Ireland assembly are to be delayed again, with a new deadline of 18 January next year for the Democratic Unionist party to return to power-sharing, the government has announced.

The decision to delay the formation of an executive means Stormont could legally be in abeyance until 11 April 2024, 12 weeks after the government will be obliged to call an election under the proposed law.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, announced special legislation in parliament enabling the delay “to allow time and space for the NI parties to work together to return to government”.

He said in a statement: “Having spoken to political representatives, businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, I have concluded that another election at this time is not the best course of action to facilitate the restoration of the executive.”

He said it was disappointing for voters that Stormont had been in abeyance since last February, but that the resumption of power-sharing remained his focus.

One Northern Ireland MP said it was the right move because it “decoupled” the Stormont process from the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, which triggered the DUP’s boycott of the devolved government.

It would also mean a different narrative if the DUP rejected any potential UK-EU deal.

Another, Stephen Farry, the MP for North Down, said: “Any snap assembly election in the current context didn’t make any sense, especially with UK-EU talks progressing.

But he said the government could not allow drift.

“Northern Ireland can’t afford a political vacuum and the government seriously need to look at reform of the political institutions to stop any party vetoing their operation and denying Northern Ireland a government.”

Power-sharing has been suspended for almost a year, but the latest delay will not mean the return of direct rule. Instead the civil service will run the administration with budgets set in Westminster.

But it will also raise questions about the much-anticipated visit by the US president, Joe Biden, and his special envoy, Joe Kennedy III, who has yet to set foot in Northern Ireland since his appointment on 19 December.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the proposed legislation but urged the government not to “take their foot off the pedal or back down on the pressure needed to reform and restore the assembly” given the need to address hospital waiting lists, workers pay and energy costs.

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Many believe the DUP will oppose a new deal on the protocol widely expected in the coming weeks because it is unlikely to meet the seven conditions the party has set to end its boycott of the Stormont assembly.

Under existing legislation Heaton-Harris was obliged to call an election by the end of the first week of March if he were to meet the legal deadline of mid April to form an executive.

“My guess is the DUP are not going to come back to Stormont whatever the protocol deal because they will find something to oppose, but that they will return long-term because there is no other show in town,” said one Northern Ireland MP.

The Northern Ireland (executive formation) bill was introduced to parliament on Thursday and will be debated later in February.

Heaton-Harris held round table talks with with the political parties in Belfast “to urge them to restore the executive as soon as possible” and update them on protocol talks.

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