Northern Ireland

Government must follow through on threat to call election, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy says

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy. Picture by Hugh Russell
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy. Picture by Hugh Russell

The Government must follow through with its threat to call an election, Sinn Féin has insisted.

Former Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy was commenting after Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris failed to set a date for a new election, despite repeatedly indicating he would as a legislative deadline for calling a poll approached.

The 24-week deadline for forming a functioning powersharing Executive in Belfast following May’s election ran out at midnight early on Friday October 28.

A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions – in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol – prevented an administration being formed in the wake of May’s poll.

Once the deadline passed on Friday, the UK Government assumed a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks.

Mr Heaton-Harris insisted on Friday he still intended to call an election but failed to set a date, prompting Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, to apologise to election workers who are on standby to assist on the basis polling day will be December 15.

The Secretary of State said he would say more about an election this week after holding talks with the local parties – meetings which are scheduled to take place tomorrow.

He also indicated he would potentially take action to cut the pay of MLAs.

However, Downing Street later said it is “not aware” of any plans for an update on an election in Northern Ireland during talks with leaders over the coming days.

Commenting on the general developments, Mr Murphy told BBC Radio Ulster: “It’s just, I think, symptomatic of a general degree of chaos that’s going on within the Conservative Party over the last number of months.

“We’ve been collateral damage from that. And I suppose the irony is the DUP are holding out and preventing us from forming an assembly and an executive on the basis that they will have some influence over the Conservatives, and you can see very clearly with the chaos that’s going on there, that that strategy isn’t working and that the only people that are suffering as a consequence of that strategy are the people that we collectively represent.

“So, we’re no clearer today than we were on Friday as to what the Secretary of State intends to do.

“We’ve been very clear that we want to see the Executive and the Assembly up and running. That deadline has now passed because the DUP prevented it again last Thursday, and so now the law requires us to move to an election and that’s what we need to do.”

He added: “The DUP are holding out to get some certainty from a Government that isn’t certain itself about what it’s doing, and it’s preventing the rest of us from getting on with the business of providing support to people here in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.”

The DUP’s former economy minister Gordon Lyons suggested the Government had wrongly believed that its threat about calling an election would force his party to drop its block on powersharing.

“I think that the feeling within the Northern Ireland Office was a threat of an election would change the DUP’s mind – it’s not going to,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Mr Lyons said talk of an election was a “distraction” from the “real work” the Government needed to do to resolve issues with the protocol.

The DUP says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

“I don’t have any insight as to what’s going on in the Northern Ireland Office,” said Mr Lyons.

“It seems that people within the Northern Ireland Office don’t seem to know what’s going on either.

“But we need to get this sorted. We want to see this resolved. We want to make sure that we are in a position to get an Assembly and an Executive in place, but there can’t be a solid basis for an Executive or an Assembly until the protocol is replaced with arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and see our constitutional arrangements respected.

“So, I think this is all a bit of a distraction from the real work that actually needs to be done. And that’s where the focus of the Northern Ireland Office should be.”

In a statement on Sunday evening, Mr Heaton-Harris said his meetings with the parties would be used to “discuss next steps”, including how he will ensure public services continue to run, protect the public finances and consider options on MLA pay.

Mr Heaton-Harris is also to meet the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, later in the week.

He reiterated his disappointment that an executive was not formed.

“The duty to call an election is not one I bear lightly, and I will be outlining to the parties that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a strong and accountable government,” he said.

“In the meantime, I will work tirelessly to protect the interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland.

“There are a number of things I could do, including taking action on MLA pay, which I know many people feel is deeply unfair while the Assembly is unable to function fully.

“I am also concerned by the issues within the Stormont budget and will address these urgently with my officials and those from the Northern Ireland Civil Service.”