THE SECRETARY of state was widely expected to again extend the deadline for calling an election but nobody foresaw the can disappearing so far down the road, with a kick worthy of Johnny Sexton. January 24, 2024 is effectively a year away and while in politics that can be regarded as very long time, it's possible we'll find ourselves in a situation not dissimilar to today. In his written statement in the House of Commons, Chris Heaton-Harris said he'd considered his options and concluded that the extension will create "time and space" for the Stormont parties to work together to restore the institutions. We know the origin of the deadlock but for some reason – protocol perhaps? – the secretary of state daren't speak the DUP's name.
He gave assurances that an assembly election can be called at any time between now and the fresh deadline but having canvassed opinion from politicians, business groups and civic society he concluded that a second poll so soon after the last was "not the best course of action to facilitate the restoration of the executive". The polls indicate the outcome wouldn't be that much different from last May's election but that the SDLP and UUP would be squeezed further in a continuation of the steady slide that has beset both parties since they delivered the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. That anniversary on April 10 now looks likely to pass without the institutions it created in place. There'll be no Joe Biden visit and we can expect somewhat muted celebrations.
The secretary of state's efforts to get things back on track continued yesterday with a roundtable with the parties in Belfast, including Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who controversially was excluded from the corresponding meeting last month. These regular gatherings certainly don't have a hothouse feel to them but Mr Heaton-Harris has to be seen to be doing something, while Brussels and London try to resolve the protocol, which the DUP says is the reason for its boycott.
In the meeting, he threw an apparent curveball across the table when he suggested the quickest way to implement Dáithí’s Law, delayed due to the absence of the institutions, was to recall the assembly for a single sitting. It was some timely emotional blackmail directed at the DUP, and within a matter of hours Sinn Féin had taken the initiative by tabling a petition to recall the assembly in a bid to finally pass the legislation introducing an opt-out on organ donation,
It was an uncontrived pincer movement that put Sir Jeffrey Donaldson firmly on the spot. Would the DUP leader allow his party's determined opposition to the protocol get in the way of saving lives? The campaign led by Dáithí’s family, which until earlier this year was thought to be a complete success, has quite rightly found widespread sympathy with the public. Stormont is quite rightly criticised for its failure to pass meaningful legislation but in this case MLAs are to be applauded. To block it from moving to the statute books would appear churlish, to say the least, and could prove politically damaging. Early indications suggested the DUP was seeking to pass the buck but the pressure on the party is expected to build over the coming days. Watch this space.