UK rules out December vote to break N.Ireland deadlock
London on Friday ruled out a December election to break political deadlock in Northern Ireland, where a standoff over post-Brexit trade rules is preventing resumption of a power-sharing government.
“I can now confirm that no Assembly election will take place in December or ahead of the festive season,” Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said in a written statement.
“Current legislation requires me to name a date for an election to take place within 12 weeks of 28 October and next week, I will make a statement in parliament to lay out my next steps,” he added.
The UK government last week said it would call elections before the end of January, the second vote since May, after London and Belfast failed to resolve the post-Brexit spat.
The province has been without a devolved government since the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party collapsed power-sharing in February over opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol governing trade rules after the UK’s departure from the EU.
“My objective, what the people of Northern Ireland deserve, is the restoration of a strong devolved government,” Heaton-Harris said on Friday.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney welcomed the decision, saying his government “fully shares” the goal of “restoration of functioning institutions” in Northern Ireland.
Coveney, who met Heaton-Harris in Belfast earlier this week, added the decision not to hold the December poll “creates space for progress on other matters”.
– ‘Perpetual standoff’ –
The UK minister noted during talks last week that political parties in Belfast were opposed to holding a second election in less than a year, but insisted that he had been left with no other option.
The DUP wants the protocol, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market and customs union, overhauled or scrapped entirely.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has argued the protocol “harms our economy, harms our people and prevents us getting access to medicines and other vital supplies”.
Donaldson on Friday called for a “razor-sharp focus” on finding a solution.
“There is no solid basis for a fully functioning Stormont until NIP (Northern Ireland Protocol) is replaced with arrangements that unionists can support. Progress in NI only made when unionists & nationalists are aboard,” he tweeted.
Three months after the DUP began the boycott, pro-Irish party Sinn Fein won a historic first election, which is seen as further complicating the political situation.
Its leader Michelle O’Neill — who was set to become first minister if the executive had been restarted — has condemned the DUP’s “perpetual standoff with the public”, claiming it does not represent “the majority”.
Both leaders have said they are reluctantly ready to fight another election and have criticised Heaton-Harris — only appointed to his role on September 6 — for appearing to leave the situation uncertain.
– ‘Dysfunction’ –
O’Neill decried the “dysfunction” in London, which has seen three prime ministers in two months.
“We have a situation tonight where people just don’t know what is going to happen next,” she added.
Unionists argue that the protocol — agreed by London and Brussels as part of Britain’s 2019 Brexit deal — threatens Northern Ireland’s constitutional place in the United Kingdom and upsets the delicate balance of peace with the pro-Irish nationalist community.
The protocol was agreed to avoid the return of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Eliminating that hard border was a key strand of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The UK’s Conservative government has urged Brussels to agree to wholesale revisions of the protocol, which is being resisted in ongoing negotiations.
London is also in the midst of passing contentious legislation to override it unilaterally.
That has sparked fears of a trade war and worsening relations with Europe — when the economic landscape is already gloomy.