New decade, same old British approach

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The British government has ripped up a requirement for holding an election in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ Stormont talks deal.

Current British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris said on Wednesday that he would bring legislation before Westminster to override the deal and extend the ‘deadline’ for restoring the Assembly by up to 12 weeks. The move means it could be April before an Assembly election takes place, if at all.

Signed in January 2020, the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal was the sixth Irish talks pact since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Under the agreement, an Assembly election must be called in the absence of a functioning Executive after a period of six months.

With the DUP maintaining its boycott of the power-sharing institutions, the deadline to restore Stormont passed without resolution at the end of October. However, despite repeated assurances that he would do so, the British Direct Ruler failed to call the necessary election.

There had been speculation that a vote would be held in December, but last Friday Heaton-Harris said it would not take place “ahead of the festive season”. And in a brief statement to the Commons on Wednesday, Heaton-Harris confirmed he would formally break the talks deal, saying only: “The vast majority of those I have spoken to think that an election at this time would be unwelcome.”

Hope that the DUP could soon drop its Brexit ultimatum and end its political boycott was said to have motivated the delay, but all sides cast doubt on that idea. The British government has instead been accused of simply providing cover for a party who have been avoided government since coming second to Sinn Féin in the May election. Unionists have also been keen to avoid a ‘winter of discontent’ election which could hand more of their seats to nationalists.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, who remains blocked from taking up her role as First Minister-designated, accused the British government of “dithering”.

“What we now have are new deadlines, multiple deadlines in which he (British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak) may or many not call an election. This is not a good enough space for people to be in and I think the fundamental question today has to be around, what’s next?”

In their public statements on Wednesday, British officials also introduced a plan to cut the pay of Assembly members by 27%. While popular with the public, politicians from several parties questioned why they had been punished alongside those DUP members of the Assembly who are refusing to engage with the Stormont institutions.

“I think it would have been more effective to target that towards those people that are actually failing to turn up and join all the rest of the team that actually want to be here to make politics work,” Ms O’Neill said.

She also said the Six Counties is facing the prospect of an “unadulterated Tory budget” imposed on the region without any clarity on measures to help with the cost of living.

“He (Mr Heaton-Harris) has taken powers obviously to set a budget that allows the lights to be kept on but doesn’t allow any new decisions, doesn’t allow us to actually plan for the future, doesn’t allow us to invest and prioritise our health service, doesn’t allow us to deal with the issue of public sector pay. So, I don’t think that’s a good position.

“So, the DUP have landed us in a position where we have an unadulterated Tory budget with no filter in terms of local decision-making, no filter in terms of local ministers taking decisions in the interest of the people that live here.”

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