An announcement that there will be no fresh Stormont election in December has been described as “classic Tory chaos”.
After days of speculation following the collapse of the Assembly, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said there will not be an election in December.
He said he will outline his next steps in Parliament next week.
Mr Heaton-Harris is obliged to call an election within 12 weeks of October 28 when the deadline for the Northern Ireland parties to form a fresh executive ran out.
A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an administration being formed in the wake of the outcome of the last election in May which saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party at Stormont for the first time.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve a strong devolved government. I have had valuable conversations with Party leaders and people across Northern Ireland over the past week and have listened to their concerns about the impact and cost of an election at this time. (1/2)
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) November 4, 2022
While a December election has been ruled out, it is understood that a poll in January is regarded as posing major logistical challenges.
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill accused Mr Heaton-Harris of “more dithering and indecision”, and a “continuation of the Tory chaos in London”.
“Chris Heaton-Harris has confirmed the bizarre U-turn he made last week but once again he provides no clarity or certainty on what his next steps even are,” she said.
“The British government and the DUP are leaving us in a prolonged state of political limbo with no Assembly, Executive or caretaker ministers.
“This is totally unacceptable at a time when workers, families and small businesses are struggling through the cost-of-living crisis and a cold winter, and when our health service needs immediate investment.”
She said Mr Heaton-Harris should outline now exactly what the UK Government intends to do to restore the political institutions at Stormont.
She also pressed on certainty over when people in Northern Ireland will receive the promised £400 cost of living energy payment.
Earlier her party colleague John O’Dowd described a “classic example of Tory chaos being imposed upon the people”, and criticised Mr Heaton-Harris as “part of the political difficulties”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has called for a “razor-sharp focus on getting a solution, whether by negotiation or legislation” to the protocol.
“There is no solid basis for a fully functioning Stormont until NIP is replaced with arrangements that unionists can support. Progress in NI only made when unionists and nationalists are aboard,” he tweeted.
Mr Heaton-Harris has also been criticised by Labour former Secretary of State Lord Hain who said: “Nobody thought an election would resolve anything, and why the government got itself into that position, who knows?
Fully share the Secretary of State’s objective; restoration of functioning institutions in NI. We had a good discussion this week, including on legal obligations under NDNA. No election pre Christmas is welcome & creates space for progress on other matters. We remain in contact. https://t.co/v1c5YbQb5Q
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) November 4, 2022
“It gives me no pleasure at all to say this but I don’t think the Secretary of State or the government know what they’re doing because there’s no clarity, there’s no purpose, there’s no strategy. It seems to be lurching from one problem to another.”
Earlier this week Mr Heaton-Harris met Stormont parties as well as Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.
On Friday Mr Coveney welcomed the decision not told hold elections before Christmas.
“Fully share the Secretary of State’s objective; restoration of functioning institutions in NI,” he tweeted.
“We had a good discussion this week, including on legal obligations under NDNA (New Decade New Approach).
“No election pre Christmas is welcome and creates space for progress on other matters. We remain in contact.”
The Alliance Party, UUP and SDLP also welcomed the decision not to have an election in December.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said she believes Chris Heaton-Harris has “lost credibility” over his decision.
“He hasn’t said there won’t be an election. He simply said it won’t happen the side of Christmas,” she said.
“If you talk to the average person on the street in Northern Ireland today, most of them will see this is something of a Christmas miracle, because nobody actually wanted to go into the polls before Christmas.
She said the test will be his next decision, and also called for a reform of the how the Assembly and Executive functions, stating that any power given to a party to “hold the institutions to ransom” should be removed.
UUP leader Doug Beattie said there is now an “opportunity to create time and space to resolve matters”.
“Under the current legislation we still face a deadline of 8 December and a possible Assembly election on the 18th January. That would also be a mistake because an election would simply cost money and stall negotiations on the protocol,” he said.
“None of this changes the basic fact that we need to reach a solution that gives Unionism confidence so all parties can return to the Executive and work for the people of NI.”
SDLP MP Claire Hanna described a “big U-turn”, telling RTE that Mr Heaton-Harris had “hoisted himself on his own petard by being so definitive in the run-up to last week”, but added: “we’ll give him a bit of space to try and fix some of these problems because they are fixable.”
Speculation was heightened on Wednesday after Steve Baker, a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office, insisted the date for a Northern Ireland election will be confirmed soon.
But in a statement on Friday morning, Mr Heaton-Harris said he had listened to concerns about the impact and the cost of an election at this time.
“I can now confirm that no Assembly election will take place in December, or ahead of the festive season,” he said in the statement.
“Current legislation requires me to name a date for an election to take place within 12 weeks of October 28 and next week I will make a statement in Parliament to lay out my next steps.”
He added: “My objective, what the people of Northern Ireland deserve, is the restoration of a strong, devolved government.
“My duty is to create the right environment for the parties in Northern Ireland to work together to restore the devolved institutions and deliver on crucial issues impacting Northern Ireland’s people.
“I do not take this duty lightly, nor do I overlook the very real concerns people have around their cost of living.”
While the UK Government is now under a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks, it could amend legislation at Westminster that would either extend or remove that time limit.
The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed unilateral domestic legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.
The European Commission has said the latter approach would breach the terms of an international treaty and potentially prompt retaliatory action.