The limbo continues: Northern Ireland remains without a devolved government as Christmas election called off

Solution to impasse is linked to Protocol negotiations - and progress could provide cover for legislation to push back poll deadline

The Northern Secretary could not have been clearer. Chris Heaton-Harris said so himself, repeatedly, in the run-up to the end of October deadline which required either the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive, or a fresh election.

Yet when it came to “one minute past midnight on the 28th of October”, as Heaton-Harris had phrased it, he did not call that election.

The new UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, just days into the job, intervened; according to informed sources, the key conduit was the former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith – a close ally of Sunak who is still well-regarded in the North and maintains many contacts there. He had been taking the temperature throughout and relaying this back to the new prime minister. There was also strong representation from the Irish Government.

The message got through. Never mind that this was what politicians, businesses and the public in Northern Ireland had been saying all along, that nobody wanted an election – particularly not just before Christmas. It would cost an awful lot, change very little, and likely make everything worse, not least by reinforcing the divisions between the DUP, determined to stay out of the Assembly, and the rest of the main parties, who want to get back in.


So last Friday, October 28th, Heaton-Harris blinked; a day of confused communication from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) culminated in a hastily-convened press conference on the pavement outside its headquarters in central Belfast in which he denied he had performed a U-turn by not naming a date for an election.

The man who had repeatedly said he would be clear was not clear; the response from local politicians was to line up in front of microphones to explain that, basically, they had no idea what was going to happen next.

After a week of discussions, on Friday of this week at least there was clarity on one point: there will not be an election on December 15th.

This has undoubtedly come at the expense of the Northern Secretary’s credibility, though he is entitled to some credit for at least making that decision, albeit belatedly, even at the risk of losing face; the discussions with political parties and the Irish Government this week were clearly about giving some cover for the change of stance.

“It takes physical courage to change your mind when you’ve got something wrong, he got something wrong,” the UUP leader Doug Beattie told the BBC on Friday; that said, the consequence will inevitably be to put the Northern Secretary in a weakened position the next time he comes to negotiate with the Northern parties.

In the meantime, there is relief that a pre-Christmas election has been avoided, yet the reality is the legal position remains the same.

This is another point that Heaton-Harris has repeatedly explained; as Northern Secretary, once the deadline for the restoration of the Assembly by October 28th was missed, he is legally obliged to call an election which must be held within 12 weeks.

This would mean an election on, at the latest, January 19th, which would require that election to be called by mid-December at the latest.

Suddenly the reprieve has got shorter; Northern Ireland, familiar with the political cliff-edge, will be back there sooner rather than later and – with the UK chancellor’s economic statement due on November 17th – there will be limited focus from London.

There is of course the other option – as there has been throughout – that legislation could be introduced to push back this latest election deadline.

For the meantime, the limbo continues; Northern Ireland remains without a devolved Government, as has been the case since the last election in May.

This means there are no ministers in place to make decisions, not least in a time when people in Northern Ireland are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

Yet again, the Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said on Friday, there was “no clarity or certainty on what his [the Northern Ireland Secretary’s] next steps even are.

“This is totally unacceptable at a time when workers, families are struggling through the cost-of-living crisis and a cold winter, and when our health service needs immediate investment.”

For his part, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson called for a “razor-sharp focus” on a solution to unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Its opposition to the protocol is where the present impasse – caused by the DUP’s refusal to go back into the Assembly until its difficulties with the protocol were addressed – began, and where, the party argues, it must end.

“There is no solid basis for a fully-functioning Stormont until the Northern Ireland protocol is replaced with arrangements that unionists can support,” Mr Donaldson said. “Progress in NI is only made when unionists and nationalists are aboard.”

A solution, therefore, is linked to the negotiations on the protocol, which is unlikely to come any time soon, though any sort of progress could provide cover for legislation to delay that election deadline and, potentially, to give space for those protocol discussions to bear fruit.

It is understood the Irish Government is in favour of a limited extension of the deadline which would give space for this to take place and for concrete progress to be made.

All eyes will be on Mr Heaton-Harris next week, when he will make a statement to Parliament “to lay out my next steps”; the hope will be that, this time, he will finally be clear on what exactly lies ahead for Northern Ireland.