NI likely to face its second election this year by Xmas, MPs told

NI secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, indicates a polling day in mid-December unless power sharing is quickly restoredNorthern Ireland will face assembly elections before Christmas unless power-sharing is restored in the next 10 days, the government has confirme…

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Northern Ireland will face assembly elections before Christmas unless power-sharing is restored in the next 10 days, the government has confirmed.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, hinted at an 8 or 15 December polling day during evidence at a House of Commons select committee. It would be the second election for Northern Ireland this year.

Heaton-Harris told MPs his focus was “trying to charm, beguile, coax everybody” to return to Stormont by a 28 October deadline. However, with the Democratic Unionist party’s continuing boycott over the Northern Ireland protocol, this is considered unlikely. Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer has reportedly written to the parties informing them that 15 December will be the polling date if Heaton-Harris calls an election.

The devolved government has not fully functioned since February, when the DUP withdrew its senior representatives, including the first minister, in protest at the Brexit trade deal’s protocol, which mandates checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The DUP continued its boycott after the elections in May, in which Sinn Féin overtook the party for the first time.

Heaton-Harris told MPs: “If we do not get a reformed executive by one minute past midnight on 28 October, I will be calling an election, that’s what the law requires me to do, and that is what I will be doing.”

The resumption of talks between the UK and the EU over the protocol dispute prompted speculation that Heaton-Harris would delay a second election. However, he told MPs that even if he were minded to do so, he could not “see the space” for the necessary emergency legislation.

Stephen Farry MP, deputy leader of the cross-community Alliance party, said it was “probably realistic to think that we’re not going to have an executive in the next few weeks”.

Pressed by the DUP’s Ian Paisley as to whether an election could happen on 8 December or 15 December, Heaton-Harris replied he would “like to think it would be a relatively short campaign”. He indicated Paisley was “in the right zone” and confirmed any election would be before Christmas.

His comments come during heightened interest in Northern Ireland, with a flurry of visits to Belfast amid hopes a deal can be struck over the protocol dispute.

On Tuesday, the US ambassador to the UK, Jane Hartley, visited Belfast, underlining Joe Biden’s continued commitment to cementing the peace agreement 25 years after it was signed.

On Monday the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, met political parties, while last week a delegation from the European parliament met civic and political leaders. Next week, the Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker will meet the taoiseach.

Heaton-Harris told MPs that talks with the EU were “tough” but they were talking about what a resolution would look like at the highest level. “Things are quite complicated on all sides … There are conversations about what a landing zone could look like,” he said.

Negotiations are being led by the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, with the most recent talks being held with the EU’s lead negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, on Monday.

“Everyone is approaching this in a positive and grownup fashion but just because the mood music has changed doesn’t mean the talks are not quite tough,” Heaton-Harris said.

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