Deadline to bring back Stormont powersharing pushed back until 2024

Fresh Assembly elections no longer imminent as NI Protocol negotiations continue

The deadline for re-forming Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has been extended and a potential Assembly election delayed for a further year.

It means the North could remain without a functioning government for at least another 12 months.

Legislation introduced at Westminster on Thursday extends the period for the formation of an Executive until January 18th, 2024. If the Executive and Assembly have not been reformed by then, the Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will be legally required to call a fresh Assembly election, which must take place at the latest by April 11th, 2024.

Mr Heaton-Harris could also decide to call an election at any point in the next year.


Mr Heaton-Harris did not speak to the media following the announcement as a press conference in Belfast did not go ahead after the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) tried to limit it to selected outlets. RTÉ, BBC, UTV and Press Association - the only media outlets who were invited - refused to take part if their colleagues were excluded. The Irish Times had earlier sought access but was blocked by the NIO from attending.

Northern Ireland has been without a fully-functioning government for more than a year, when the then first minister, the DUP’s Paul Givan, resigned as part of his party’s protest against the Northern Ireland protocol.

The DUP subsequently refused to re-enter the Assembly following elections in May, and has consistently said it will not do so until its concerns on the protocol are addressed.

Negotiations are continuing between the EU and UK amid mounting expectations that the two will soon reach a deal on the controversial post-Brexit trading arrangement.

In a statement on Thursday ahead of a roundtable meeting with the main Northern parties, Mr Heaton-Harris said there was no appetite for an election in Northern Ireland in the near future, but he wanted to be “clear that the extension does not influence protocol discussions and that the UK government wants to see a deal between the UK and EU as soon as possible.”

Speaking in Belfast after meeting Mr Heaton-Harris and other parties, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald urged the UK and the EU to strike a deal on the protocol.

“Everybody is up for it, the European institutions are up for it, the British government tell us that they are up for it so that deal needs to be done. It has been argued for a long time that that deal can be done, and in fact could be done very quickly with goodwill,” she said.

Ms McDonald also expressed concern that pushing the deadline for a fresh election back to January is “legislating for further drift”.

“The idea that the DUP, on a rolling basis, would prevent that could not possibly be acceptable to anybody who calls themselves a democrat,” she said.

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons reiterated his party’s position that it wants concerns around the protocol addressed.

“From our point of view, we don’t fear going to the electorate, we’re quite happy to get our mandate renewed. In fact, we think we’ll improve on the election results from last time,” he said. “But ultimately, what we want to see sorted out is the protocol.

“Get it resolved in accordance with the seven tests that we’ve set out, which allow us to form that stable executive to deal with the issues that we’re facing.”

The announcement was greeted in Dublin with some relief. The Irish Government has long privately counselled the British government that an election in the North would solve nothing and be likely to only entrench divisions over the protocol.

In a statement issued by the Taoiseach’s spokesman in Brussels, where he is attending the EU summit, Leo Varadkar said it was an “understandable move by the Secretary of State which removes the risk of an election. An election at this point in time would be divisive and unlikely to result in the formation of an executive.”

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said he had been given a “heads up” about the move by the Northern Ireland secretary to extend the deadline for elections to Stormont by a year.

Speaking on a visit to Washington on Thursday he said when he had met parties in Northern Ireland last week “no one was calling for an election right now”.

“The bottom line is we need restore the executive and assembly in line with the mandate given by the people of Northern Ireland in the most recent election – that is the focus of everyone’s energy and attention.”

Speaking in advance of meetings with senior politicians on Capitol Hill, Mr Martin said there was “growing concern internationally” about the legislation planned by the British government to deal with legacy issues arising from the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

He said amendments to the legislation had been put forward by the British side, (but) “we do not believe they go far enough”.

Mr Martin said he was conscious that the victims’ groups were dissatisfied with the proposed legacy legislation and no party in Northern Ireland was in favour of it.

“The wisest thing would be for the British government to pause progression of this bill and all get around the table and try agree a collective approach to legacy once and for all.”

Mr Martin said he did not discuss the timing of a visit by US president Joe Biden to Ireland when he met w officials this week.

He said Mr Biden was interested in the restoration of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.

The original deadline for the reformation of the Executive was missed in October 2022. Mr Heaton-Harris subsequently introduced an extension until January 2023, which was also missed, and meant he was legally required to either call an election by mid-April or legislate again for another extension.

There had been speculation the aim was to have the Executive and Assembly up and running again in time for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in April, but this now appears unlikely.

Announcing the further extension on Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris emphasised the importance of the return of the North’s devolved institutions and said it would allow “time and space” for the Northern parties.

“Over a year has passed since the then-First Minister of Northern Ireland resigned,” he said. “Twelve months and one Assembly election later, it is disappointing that people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved government that they deserve.

“After considering my options, and engaging widely in Northern Ireland, I know that an election in the coming weeks will not be helpful or welcome.

“So, I am introducing a Bill to create more time for the Parties to work together and return to government, as pProtocol discussions continue between the UK and EU.

“The restoration of the Executive, in line with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, remains my top priority. I will continue to do everything I can to help the parties work together to make that happen,” he said.

The extension was welcomed by the Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, who said an election would “achieve absolutely nothing” and there was now “time and space to come up with a better solution.”

The SDLP’s Stormont leader, Matthew O’Toole, also welcomed the extension, saying it appeared as if there would soon be solutions regarding the Northern Ireland protocol and it was “a good thing in the middle of that we are not going to have another Assembly election.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent