Northern Ireland

Secretary of state says 'I’m afraid it is an election' if no Executive formed by October 28

A laptop screen shows Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris speaking during a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearing. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
A laptop screen shows Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris speaking during a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearing. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has restated his intention to call a Stormont election if the executive is not reformed by October 28.

Devolved government in the north has been in flux across the year, and current legislation requires Mr Heaton-Harris to call a fresh election if an executive is not formed.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he “can’t see the space” for any emergency legislation to potentially avert the move.

Appearing at the Northern Ireland Affairs committee today, Mr Heaton-Harris said he had discussed the ongoing paralysis at Stormont with his Cabinet colleagues earlier that day.

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

“I know that lots of people really do not see or do not want that to happen but it is a legislative requirement.”

He said he “can’t see the space” for any emergency legislation.

He added: “The best solution would be having an executive up and running, without a shadow of a doubt.

“If we come back and people choose not to go into positions … actually I think almost immediately the ministers fall away and it gives me a few tough decisions to make which I’d much rather not be taking but I’m fully cognisant of some of the issues that I’ve been reading about in the newspapers, being told about by real folk in real streets on real doorsteps that they’re facing.

“Lots of things would be a lot easier if the executive were running and so my focus is trying to charm, beguile, coax everybody into that place, that they come back into the executive, and I’d like to think I will be successful, but if I’m not then I’m afraid it is an election.”

The DUP is blocking the functioning of the powersharing institutions as part of its protest against the protocol which has created barriers on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The British government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either through a negotiated compromise with the EU or domestic legislation to empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

DUP MP Ian Paisley put “difficulty” to Mr Heaton-Harris around Sinn Féin, referring to a former party councillor Jonathan Dowdall being convicted in the Republic of Ireland of facilitating a murder in Dublin and several incidents of pro-IRA chanting.

He also referred to Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill’s comments that there was “no alternative” to IRA violence during the Troubles.

“Are you able to push back on the Irish government, on the Sinn Fein leader and others to indicate to them just how difficult a situation these actual examples of people’s conduct is going to make the negotiations to fix the Northern Ireland peace,” Mr Paisley asked.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he has not had the opportunity “to raise those personally but I am the sort of person who absolutely would”.

“But I do put it again into that historical context, I completely understand how significant and important these things are, but 25 years ago when the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was being formed, there were at least equal if not much worse things going on in the background, yet people still choose to come together for peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Paisley also pressed Mr Heaton-Harris on a likely date if an Assembly election is called at the end of the month, asking whether it would be December 8 or December 15.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he would “like to think it would be a relatively short campaign”, and indicated Mr Paisley was “in the right zone”, confirming it would be “before Christmas”.