Britain ‘undecided’ about Stormont election

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The British government has been accused of ‘playing for time’ after backing away from a legal requirement to hold an Assembly election in the north of Ireland.

Since Friday of last week, an election is required under the 2020 ‘New Decade New Approach’ agreement, but British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris has said only he will provide an update “in due course”.

The Stormont assembly has been suspended since January due to a unionist boycott, and has not functioned for four of the past six years. A 24-week legislative timeframe to re-establish a ministerial Executive following May’s election ran out on Friday, and the London government is under a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks.

Following talks on Wednesday, the 26 County Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said a decision had still not been taken by the British government. Jon Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool, said Heaton-Harris was wavering: “He’s now playing for time hoping something will turn up.”

A special recall of the Assembly last Thursday failed to end the current DUP boycott of power-sharing. Politicians vented their frustration while setting out their election stall, including Alliance party leader Naomi Long, who admitted she was “ashamed to be part of this circus yet again”.

It was the fourth time the Assembly has met and failed to elect a Speaker since May’s election.

The DUP used the opportunity to once again demand changes to the Brexit deal between Britain and the EU. Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who has been deprived of taking up the First Minister position after her party won the most seats in May’s election, accused DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson of a “failure of leadership”. She said that if power-sharing could not be restored, there should be a “joint approach” between London and Dublin.

Frustration at the situation increased when the signalled election announcement failed to materialise. Politicians and journalists alike had believed Heaton-Harris would follow through on his repeated vow to set the election date on Friday, only to see him postpone the decision. That forced the North’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.

It is unclear what motivated the change of heart, but inactivity and delay has become the hallmark of British policy in the north of Ireland. Despite lengthy meetings with the political parties, Heaton-Harris remained non-committal.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill condemned the “bizarre u-turn” and said she was “none the wiser” after her party’s meeting on Tuesday.

“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.

“We’re left with no information in terms of what happens next, or at least what he intends to do next. It’s very clear he has a legal obligation in which to call an election if an Executive is not formed.

“But 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.”

Ms O’Neill said it was unacceptable that the public have been “left in limbo” and accused the British government of “pandering to the DUP” to create a political vacuum.

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy told the BBC it was symptomatic of the chaos within the Conservative Party over the last number of months. He said the north of Ireland had been “collateral damage” from that.

“The irony is the DUP are holding out and preventing us from forming an assembly and an executive on the basis that they will have some influence over the Conservatives, and you can see very clearly with the chaos that’s going on there, that that strategy isn’t working and that the only people that are suffering as a consequence of that strategy are the people that we collectively represent.

“So, we’re no clearer today than we were on Friday as to what the Secretary of State intends to do.”

He added: “The DUP are holding out to get some certainty from a government that isn’t certain itself about what it’s doing, and it’s preventing the rest of us from getting on with the business of providing support to people here in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.”

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