NI Secretary says Assembly election will take place but does not set date

The Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said he will call a snap Assembly election but has not set a date.

It had been widely anticipated that Mr Heaton-Harris would announce the date for an election on Friday, after a deadline to restore devolved government at Stormont passed at midnight.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has accused the Secretary of State of a “U-turn” and said he had left the people of Northern Ireland “in limbo”.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he would give more information next week and would meet with the Stormont parties.

He said he was faced with “limited options”.

Cabinet meeting
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris (Victoria Jones/PA)

Speaking in Belfast on Friday, he said: “I am deeply disappointed we are where are are now.

“This is a really serious situation. As of a minute past midnight last night, there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services do continue and to protect the public finances.

“But there is a limit to what the Secretary of State can do in these circumstances.”

Ms O’Neill said: “Today, he is doing a bizarre U-turn, one of which he obviously communicated to the media in advance of speaking to the local parties, from my understanding at least.

“I think just think it is bizarre, it reflects the chaotic nature of the Tories, it is more dysfunction, it is spilling into our politics.

“But you see for the workers and families tonight and the businesses that are struggling, the people here that are left without an Assembly, an Executive, there is not even a caretaker minister in place and we have a situation tonight where people just don’t know what is going to happen next.”

In a statement, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson urged the Government to “focus on resolving the problem rather than dithering over an election”.

“The Government and the NIO talked up an election and now no-one knows what is happening,” he said.

“Parliament is sovereign and can of course legislate to keep ministers if it so wishes.

“It is now clear the Secretary of State’s boss, the Prime Minister, has not yet decided how to proceed.

“The Government should focus its time and energy on ensuring the protocol problem is dealt with and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market is restored.

“Our message to the Government continues to be that they need to get the protocol replaced and then we will have the basis for establishing a devolved government that unionists and nationalists can support.

“The Government has undermined its own credibility in recent weeks, instead of focusing on the underlying problem.”

Responsibility for running devolved departments will now pass to senior civil servants, although their powers are limited.

Mr Heaton-Harris told reporters he could rule out any joint authority approach.

“I also want to address those who have talked about joint authority,” he added.

“It is something that we will simply not consider. It is not based on the consent mechanism that is threaded through the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“So we are where we are. I have limited options ahead of me.”

Mr Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the parties and will meet with them again next week.

“I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election,” he added.

“So you’ll hear more from me on that particular point next week.

“Nearly all the parties who have been saying this won’t help the situation actually signed up to the rules that make this situation happen.

“Why call it now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”

He also denied his decision not to call an election immediately was a U-turn.

He said he understood that the “big impasse” for the unionist community was the ongoing issues with the protocol.

“But as I continually say, the atmosphere in those talks is completely changed in recent weeks and I am optimist and I really do believe that we can get somewhere on those too,” he added.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he will also be considering his options to act on MLA pay.

He said: “At a time when so many are struggling with the cost of living and fearful of what is to come, I understand people’s frustration that MLAs continue to draw a full salary when they are not performing all the duties they were elected to do.

“Right now, the executive no longer has ministers in post to act for the people of Northern Ireland. That means no ministers to deliver the public services you rely on.

“That means no ministers to manage the budget pressures affecting the funding of your hospitals, your schools, your doctors and nurses. So in the absence of an executive I will take limited but necessary steps to protect public finances and the delivery of public services.”

During a visit to Thurrock, in Essex, earlier on Friday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: “We do need to get the institutions in Northern Ireland back up and running and the sooner we can do that, the better.

“That requires our Government to get people around the negotiating table and to resolve the issues on the protocol.

“I think they can be resolved. I think there are amendments that can be made to the protocol without ripping it up.

“But the Government needs to get people around the table and get that agreement because at the moment we’ve got a very difficult situation for people in Northern Ireland who are suffering as a result of the government’s failure to convene this.”