Restoring Stormont a priority for British and Dublin governments, says Chris Heaton-Harris
Restoring the powersharing institutions at Stormont is a priority for both the British and Irish governments, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said.
After meeting Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, the Secretary of State said he believes the “mood music” is positive around reforming the executive before he has to call an election next month.
Mr Coveney said it would be an “extraordinary failure” of politics if the institutions are not operating in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The executive and Assembly are not operating due to a DUP protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
While ministers remain in shadow form, they are set to leave office on October 28 and, under current legislation, Mr Heaton-Harris would have to call new Assembly elections.
It is anticipated that the election would take place in the weeks before Christmas.
Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I will have to call an election on October 28 if there is no executive.
“It is a very small period of time to get things moving and there are important discussions between London and Brussels, as well as between Simon and myself, but these discussions can move forward.
“I am really confident that they will move forward.
“The mood music that everybody talks about is seemingly very positive.
“We now have to make sure that music turns into something much more fundamental that allows all parties to reform the executive.
“There is an important anniversary of an important document happening next year and it would be nice to have some things to celebrate.”
Mr Coveney said: “The idea that we would move into the winter in Northern Ireland facing elections, rather than facing solutions in the context of what an executive should be doing, would be extraordinary.
“We have a big political responsibility to find a way of getting this done in partnership with all the parties in Northern Ireland.
“It is not straightforward or easy and it involves decisions taken elsewhere, outside of this island, to help us in that process.
“But I think everybody knows what’s at stake and the idea that we would be leading up to the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement with the institutions collapsed, with Northern Ireland coming out of a winter of discontent in terms of the cost of living, without a first or deputy first minister in place, really it would be an extraordinary failing of politics.
“So despite the mountains we have to climb, it is our job together to make it happen.”
Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Coveney know each other from their time as MEPs in the European Parliament and both expressed hope that their relationship will help them reach compromises.
Mr Coveney said: “I think we will be judged on what we get done together.
“We know each other, we like each other.
“That allows us to speak honestly about what compromise positions might look like and explore those in a way which doesn’t get interrupted by a lack of trust.
“The personal relationship is good and it needs to be, but we will be judged pretty quickly, in the next month, as to whether we can turn a good personal relationship into one that can get important things done for people in Northern Ireland.
“Can people in Northern Ireland have their own government to deal with cost-of-living pressures, or do they have to put up with another election and all of the polarisation and tension that flows from that?
“That is the test of our relationship.”
Both politicians are due to meet in London again next week.
DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the protocol is the blockage to restoring devolution and called on the Government to expedite a bill which would override parts of it.
He said: “The Secretary of State and the Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Minister should focus on replacing the protocol with arrangements which unionists can support.
“This would recognise that we operate powersharing in Northern Ireland rather than majority rule.
“Not one unionist MLA or MP supports the protocol.
“I would love to see a negotiated outcome, but there appears to be little interest in either Brussels or Dublin to recognise the concerns of unionists.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “The NI Protocol Bill represents progress, but the Government should expedite it through its legislative processes.
“Those seeking to delay and derail the bill are only delaying the return of devolution.”