The Northern Ireland Secretary has offered no further clarity on when or if he intends to call an election in the region.
Chris Heaton-Harris faced criticism for failing to set a date for a new poll last Friday, despite repeatedly warning that he would do so the minute a legislative deadline for calling the poll passed.
After meeting with the leaders of the main Stormont parties in Belfast on Tuesday, Mr Heaton-Harris said he would provide an update on what steps he intended to take next in “due course”.
The Cabinet minister also expressed concern at the “enormous” £660 million-plus “black-hole” of an overspend facing the rudderless Stormont system in the absence of a powersharing executive, and made clear action would be needed to set a budget for Northern Ireland.
He also said he would be looking to cut the pay of MLAs.
Earlier, Sinn Fein and the DUP both expressed frustration at Mr Heaton-Harris’s failure to offer clarity on an election during their respective meetings.
The 24-week deadline for forming a functioning assembly and powersharing executive in Belfast following May’s election ran out at midnight on Friday.
A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an administration being formed in the wake of the election result.
Once the Friday deadline passed, the UK Government assumed a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks.
After meeting with Northern Ireland’s political leaders today in Belfast, I remain deeply concerned about how the people of NI will feel the impact as their devolved government continues to stagnate.
My statement: https://t.co/7121knnMzS
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) November 1, 2022
Mr Heaton-Harris has acknowledged he has a legal duty to call an election but has avoided setting a date, prompting Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, to apologise to election workers who are on stand-by to assist on the basis that polling day will be December 15.
Commenting after Tuesday’s meetings, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I had conversations with party leaders today and expressed how disappointed I am that under current legislation the legal duty now falls on me to call an election. I listened to the party leaders’ various views on calling that election.
“There are important issues of government to be dealt with due to the absence of ministers.
“I am particularly worried that the Executive has an enormous black hole in its budget, which potentially has serious implications for the delivery of many of Northern Ireland’s public services.
“Measures to set a budget will be required in the short term.
“I will provide a further update on next steps in due course.”
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.
Speaking after their meeting, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said the Secretary of State did not explain his “bizarre U-turn” in not immediately setting a date for an election.
“We’ve asked him a number of questions, but I have to say (he) provided no clarity, he provided no further information as to the U-turn,” she said.
“We’re left with no information in terms of what happens next, or at least what he intends to do next.”
Ms O’Neill said it was “very clear” that Mr Heaton-Harris was now under a legal obligation to call an election.
“He did not colour in the lines today. He certainly did not provide any clarity around what he intends to do next, apart from to say that he’s here to meet with people,” she said.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said he was in the dark about whether an election would be called.
“At the moment, neither we nor the people of Northern Ireland know if and when an election will take place,” he said.
Sir Jeffrey said his party had also received no indication whether a deal between London and Brussels on the Northern Ireland Protocol was near.
“Certainly for the part of the UK Government, we’ve had no indication at this stage that an agreement is close or imminent,” he said.
“There are continuing technical discussions, the political discussions haven’t even begun.
“That’s why yesterday and today I’m calling on the Government to have a razor-sharp focus on these negotiations. Let’s make progress. Let’s get this done.
“Let’s get a solution that replaces the protocol with arrangements that respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said her meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris was “constructive”, and that he was “taking time to reflect” before making any decision on an election.
“From our perspective, we welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has listened to what’s been said by the people of Northern Ireland, that he has paid attention to the issues that have been raised and he is clearly taking time to reflect on the way forward,” she said.
Ms Long said Mr Heaton-Harris should take action to ensure that civil servants had more powers to make decisions in the absence of elected ministers, and that MLA pay also needed to be cut if the powersharing impasse continued.
“I’ve been very open and honest in saying that I don’t believe a situation where we continue to be paid on full salaries with no prospect of a return to government is sustainable,” she said.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said that Mr Heaton-Harris had “no plan on how we proceed”, and that calling an election would be “nonsensical”.
“There is a dearth in thinking about what we could do and it’s really difficult to see how we broker anything unless we have some form of a pathway to deal with the issues that are put in front of us,” he said.
Mr Beattie said that it was “quite clear” that the issue is with the protocol, and compared Northern Ireland to a football between the UK and the EU.
“We are now reliant here in Northern Ireland, as a football between the UK and the EU, (for) them to come up with some sort of a deal and we don’t know where they are, we don’t know if they’re close to a deal and we don’t even know if there are any heads of agreement to a deal, so it’s difficult to see where we are heading,” he said.
“But if the plan is to have an election, then it’s just nonsensical.”
Mr Heaton-Harris is due to discuss the situation with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Wednesday.