Northern Ireland

First minister blames purdah for programme for government delay

Rules around ministerial announcements during election campaign puts Stormont policy plan on hold

First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the election created difficulties in publishing a programme for government
First Minister Michelle O’Neill. PICTURE: LAIM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Stormont executive’s bid have a programme for government in place before the assembly’s summer recess has been upended by the Westminster election.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was going to be “very difficult” to publish the policy plan because of purdah, the rules governing ministerial announcements during the election campaign.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader, who said in April that the executive hoped to have a draft programme for government “in place for the summer”, was responding to a question in the assembly from Opposition leader, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole.

It came some 24 hours after The Irish News asked the Executive Office if purdah would impact on the timing of the expected announcement of a draft programme for government.

The Stormont leaders’ office published its purdah guidance last Friday.

The assembly is due to rise the day after the July 4 election and will not return until September. However, the executive will sit over the summer and the assembly could be recalled to debate the programme for government if necessary.

Ms O’Neill said the executive had already published its legislative programme and draft budget.

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has called on Communities Minister Gordon Lyons to introduce a comprehensive child poverty strategy
Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Unfortunately the election has been called towards the end of last week and the early advice that both the deputy first minister and myself are receiving is that it is going to be very difficult to publish a programme for government now in the midst of an election campaign,” she said.

“But we are exploring that somewhat further because we were determined to try to get it out the door to complement the budget and the work of the legislative programme.”

She said the assembly would be kept updated on the legal advice her office was receiving.

“The purdah period kicks in and makes it very difficult to do certain areas of work and the programme for government appears to fall under that category, but we’ll keep people posted,” she said.

Ms O’Neill said the executive was “desperate” to get the policy plan in place but that the election “puts that in somewhat of a jeopardy”.

Mr O’Toole claimed the first minister was using purdah as “an alibi for not publishing the long delayed programme for government”.

“It will be important that every other component of the guidance is followed in word and deed and ministers are not using, or seen to be using, their ministerial office to advance their party’s electoral interests,” the South Belfast MLA said.

“This is particularly the case for those ministers who have, somewhat indefensibly, chosen to use ministerial office as a platform to leave Stormont in the middle of a crisis in public services.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said delays in announcing the programme for government “defied any logic”.

“We have been waiting for over 100 days for a programme for government, or even an outline of executive priorities, and now the first minister has come up with a further excuse to do nothing,” he said.