Government to extend Stormont election deadline and cut MLA pay

The Government is to extend a deadline for calling an election in Northern Ireland and cut the pay of Stormont Assembly members.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed the moves in the House of Commons on Wednesday as he outlined his next steps in response to the powersharing crisis in the region.

Existing legislation gave the Stormont parties almost six months to form a ministerial executive following the last election in May, which saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party for the first time.

The deadline to establish a new executive lapsed on October 28, at which point the Government assumed a legal responsibility to hold a fresh poll within 12 weeks – January 19.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he was now extending the deadline for parties to form an executive by six weeks to December 8, with the option of a further six-week extension.

With the Stormont deadlock intrinsically linked to the dispute over Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, the Government move is designed to provide more space for a deal to be struck between Brussels and London over the contentious Irish Sea trading arrangements

The 12-week clock for calling an election will now come into effect either on December 8 – meaning a poll would have to be held by March 2  – or six weeks later on January 19, meaning an election would need to take place by April 13 at the latest.

Mr Heaton-Harris also said he would cut the pay of MLAs to reflect the fact they are not currently doing their job as legislators.

Salaries will be reduced by 27.5% – a move in line with a cut imposed by the Government during the last powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland.

The cut is set to come into effect at the start of next month.

Cabinet meeting
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Aaron Chown/PA)

The Cabinet minister is also giving extra powers to Stormont civil servants to enable them to run the region’s rudderless public services and will take steps to pass a budget for the region.

The moves will require legislation to be laid and passed at Westminster.

Addressing the Commons, Mr Heaton Harris said: “I think it would be fair to say, Mr Speaker, that the vast majority of those I have spoken to think that an election at this time would be most unwelcome.”

A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an executive being formed in Belfast.

Northern Ireland Assembly election 2022
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Stormont could only be restored if a deal that respects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK was struck on the protocol (Liam McBurney/PA)

The region’s largest unionist party has made clear it will not countenance a return to powersharing until the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are scrapped.

Negotiations between the UK and EU aimed at securing changes to the protocol are continuing, with both sides talking up the prospect of a deal.

If a compromise on the protocol was secured that convinced the DUP to return to a devolved executive, the Government would likely come under further pressure to ditch plans for an election altogether.

The UK and Irish governments are both keen to avoid a scenario where Stormont remains in limbo next April when the 25th anniversary of the historic Good Friday peace agreement will be marked.

Announcing the deadline extension move, Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs: “This aims to create the time and space needed for talks between the UK Government and the European Commission to develop, and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible.”

He also reiterated that a joint authority arrangement between the UK and Ireland to govern Northern Ireland if the impasse continued would not be considered.

“The UK Government is absolutely clear that the consent principle governs the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, under which Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK. We will not support any arrangements that are inconsistent with that principle,” he said.

Despite repeatedly vowing to set an election date the minute the original deadline expired on October 28, Mr Heaton-Harris backtracked on that pledge, prompting Stormont parties to accuse him of a U-turn.

During Northern Ireland questions earlier in the Commons on Wednesday, he denied Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had intervened on the issue to overrule him.

“I don’t believe I was overruled by the Prime Minister,” he told MPs.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the announcement on the election and urged the UK to “make use” of the renewed opportunity to engage positively with the EU.

“The Secretary of State’s announcement provides further space for early substantive progress in discussions between the EU and UK on the issues of most concern to people and business in NI,” he said.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told Mr Heaton-Harris that people need a “solution that sees the institutions restored on the basis that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom”.

Earlier, his party colleague Edwin Poots said insisted a cut to MLA pay would have absolutely “no influence whatsoever” on his party’s stance.

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said the uncertainty over an election was not good enough and she accused Mr Heaton-Harris of “dithering and indecision”.

“What we now have are new deadlines, multiple deadlines, in which he (Mr Heaton-Harris) may or may not call an election,” she told reporters at Stormont.

“So this is not a good enough space for people to be in and I think the fundamental question today has to be around what’s next?

“What do the British Government intend to do to find an agreed way forward on the protocol?”

Ms O’Neill questioned why Mr Heaton-Harris had not targeted the pay cut at DUP MLAs who were refusing to engage with the devolved institutions.

She said Northern Ireland was also now facing the prospect of an “unadulterated Tory budget” being imposed on the region.

Northern Ireland Assembly election 2022
Alliance leader Naomi Long has called for reform of the Stormont insitutions (PA)

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long welcomed “clarity” from Mr Heaton-Harris but she said it has not changed the “pressing need for reform of the institutions”.

“As long as any one party can take the institutions hostage, they will,” she said.

“Therefore we need reform of the Assembly and executive to stop that happening, or else we could easily be back in this same situation again in a matter of months.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the focus must be on restoring the Stormont institutions.

He added with the prospect of a deal between the UK and EU on the protocol “getting closer every day”, that the DUP “has no excuse for continuing their boycott of the Stormont institutions”.