Heaton-Harris says ‘deadlines are deadly’ amid Stormont return pleas

Setting a deadline for restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland would be “deadly”, according to Chris Heaton-Harris.

The Northern Ireland Secretary added it is “pointless” to set timelines and the focus is on “getting the job done properly” to ensure the executive can remain for a “very long time” when it returns.

There has been no functioning government in Stormont since last year when the DUP withdrew in protest over the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The Windsor Framework recently struck by the UK and EU sought to reduce red tape on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, but the DUP wants further assurances.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Labour former minister Kevin Brennan said: “Given the hugely advantageous position Northern Ireland now finds itself in, as outlined by the Prime Minister when the Windsor accord was being announced, isn’t it time that powersharing really was restored?

“And isn’t it time the Secretary of State in fact considered a deadline for the restoration of powersharing?”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “The one thing I have learned in my role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is that deadlines are deadly. It is pointless setting timelines on things.

“Getting the job done properly, so when the executive comes back it can be there for a very long time, is the right thing to do. And that is what everyone is working towards.”

President Biden visit to the island of Ireland
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle (Liam McBurney/PA)

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle later asked Mr Heaton-Harris to reveal what talks were taking place about restoration of powersharing.

Mr Heaton-Harris said there was an “ongoing pattern of formal talks with the parties”, but added: “I would also say to him, one thing I have learned from the negotiations to get the Windsor Framework over the line is that some of these things are best done on a confidential basis, because otherwise, other people get to pull the threads of negotiations and the whole thing falls apart.”

Earlier at Northern Ireland questions, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson highlighted ongoing unionist concerns about the EU’s influence in Northern Ireland, particularly how “divergence from UK law”, could inhibit “our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom”.

He added: “If we are to get Stormont restored on a stable foundation, which is what we want, then we have got to resolve these issues.

“People in Northern Ireland, unionists in particular, need to know that their place in the United Kingdom, which was enshrined and protected in article 1 of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, will be equally enshrined and protected in UK law as a result of any arrangements that are put in place.”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I can give him that assurance from this despatch box, but I know because of the engagement that we have had that he would like to see that in other terms as well.

“That is why I look forward to our continuing conversations so we can work out exactly what the ask is, so I can try and deliver on that.”

In the absence of local ministers, it has fallen on Mr Heaton-Harris to set Northern Ireland’s 2023/24 budget and senior civil servants to run departments.

MPs are considering all stages of the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, opening the second reading debate, said: “The measures in this Bill will ensure a continuation of the current governance arrangements in Northern Ireland… should there be no executive when they expire on June 5.

“They are not and cannot be a substitute for devolved government… they are by no means ideal, particularly in the context of this financial position.”

He said the UK Government is “acutely concerned about the long-term sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland”, and said departments are facing “very difficult and unavoidable decisions in the current difficult and frustrating circumstances”.