Why are voters in Northern Ireland poised for a return to the polls?

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said a Stormont Assembly election will go ahead, despite not setting a date for the poll.

Here, we answer some of the key questions about the political turmoil at Stormont.

– What caused the latest powersharing impasse?

Powersharing has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister Paul Givan in an escalation of its campaign against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The region’s largest unionist party vowed to disengage with the devolved institutions in Belfast until decisive action was taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr Givan’s resignation automatically ousted Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, as powersharing rules mean one cannot hold office without the other being in post.

Other departmental ministers remained in position, but the wider executive was unable to meet and major policy decisions could not be taken.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
The DUP led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, centre, blocked the restoration of powersharing in protest against the protocol (Rebecca Black/PA)

– How did the picture change in May’s Assembly election?

The scheduled Assembly election on May 5 saw Sinn Fein displace the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland – the first time a nationalist party had come out on top.

The result meant Sinn Fein was entitled to the first minister’s post, with the DUP in line for the deputy first minister’s role.

However, the DUP maintained its block on the operation of a fully functioning executive and refused to nominate a deputy first minister.

That made the formation of a new ministerial executive impossible.

The DUP also blocked the election of a new Assembly speaker – a move that prevented the legislature at Parliament Buildings sitting.

ULSTER Stormont
(PA Graphics)

– What has happened since May?

The DUP has maintained its stance – meaning an executive has not been formed and the Assembly and its associated scrutiny committees have been unable to meet to undertake normal business.

Prior to a recent law change, the failure to nominate first and deputy first ministers following an election would have left Northern Ireland without any ministers in post.

However, rule changes delivered by the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement enabled departmental ministers from the previous mandate to remain in post (as long as they were re-elected as MLAs).

That has essentially led to a continuation of the post-February status quo, with all ministers, apart from the first and deputy first ministers, continuing in their jobs.

Those ministers have been severely hamstrung in the decisions they can take, and any significant executive-wide policy moves, such as passing a budget, have not been possible.

– Why was there a deadline on Friday?

Prior to New Decade, New Approach, a failure to fill the roles of first and deputy first minister within seven days of the first post-election sitting of a new assembly saw the Government assume a legal duty to call another election within a reasonable timeframe.

While this was the legal position following the March 2017 snap election (triggered by the resignation of the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness), the Government never actually called another election – instead opting to bring forward legislation that pushed back the requirement to call a poll during what became a three-year powersharing vacuum.

ULSTER Stormont
(PA Graphics)

New Decade, New Approach was the deal that restored powersharing in January 2020. It included provisions aimed at creating a greater degree of stability at Stormont in the event of another executive implosion.

It removed the seven-day “cliff edge” for forming a new administration and replaced it with a maximum timeframe of 24 weeks. The agreement also allowed departmental ministers to remain in post for those 24 weeks.

That deadline ran out on Friday. Sitting ministers were removed from office at midnight and the Government has assumed responsibility to call an election within 12 weeks.

The DUP has made clear it does not intend to drop its boycott, citing a lack of progress in UK/EU efforts to resolve issues with the protocol.

The Government could have amended the legislation to push back the election deadline, but did not do so.

Mr Heaton-Harris has insisted fresh Assembly elections will go ahead, but did not set a date on Friday as he had been widely expected to do.

It had been anticipated that a poll would take place on December 15.

– What happens next?

In the meantime, senior civil servants will take charge of devolved Stormont departments, although they have limited powers.

Following any future Assembly election, a new attempt would be made to elect a speaker and an executive at Stormont.

If this is unsuccessful, there could be further cycles of negotiations and future elections, until a resolution is found or the law is changed.

Alternatively, the UK Government could decide to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster.

The Taoiseach Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein have both said there can be no return to direct rule, but the UK Government has ruled out any joint authority arrangement with Dublin.