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Q&A: Is Northern Ireland going back to the polls?


ElectionImage source, Getty Images

Crunch talks are taking place in Northern Ireland in a last-ditch attempt to avoid a second assembly election within a matter of months.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is in Belfast to meet party leaders a day after it was confirmed he would remain in post after Rishi Sunak became prime minister.

As it stands, unless an executive is formed or the law is changed before Friday 28 October, the parties will once again have to make their case to the electorate.

In May, Sinn Féin was returned as the assembly’s largest party, however, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has blocked the functioning of the assembly and Stormont’s governing executive, leading to a stalemate.

BBC News NI has assessed how Northern Ireland politics has reached this point, and whether an election can still be avoided.

What happened in the 5 May election?

This entitled Michelle O’Neill, the party’s vice-president, to take the first minister position.

The DUP came second but refused to nominate a deputy first minister.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Michelle O’Neill was entitled to become Northern Ireland’s first minister after the May election

These roles form a joint office at the head of Northern Ireland’s Executive, without whom the governing body cannot function.

By refusing to nominate, the DUP blocked the executive from forming.

It also blocked the appointment of a Speaker, rendering the legislative assembly unable to meet, form committees or hold ministers to account in the assembly chamber.

What is the 28 October deadline?

Earlier this year, the law was changed at Westminster to buy more time for the Northern Ireland Executive to be formed after an election.

This had been previously agreed in the New Decade New Approach document of 2020 and would allow ministers from a previous executive to continue in their roles for a period of 24 weeks after the assembly first meets following an election. Previously it had been 14 days following the first meeting of the assembly.

This extended period, it was stated, would “allow for greater continuity of decision making”.

However, without a first and deputy first minister, ministers cannot make decisions which are seen to be cross-cutting, or needing the support of the executive as a whole.

A key example of this is the budget, which has not been agreed.

It is after this 24-week period that an election must be called if the executive has not reconvened.

With regard to the present stalemate at Stormont following May’s election, 28 October is the date which has been ringed in political diaries.

What is the DUP protest about?

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,

The DUP collapsed the executive in February and has blocked it from forming since May’s assembly election

The DUP has protested against the Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the UK-EU Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with some EU trade rules.

This was designed to ensure goods could move freely across the Irish land border, from the UK into an EU member state, the Republic of Ireland.

However, in turn, the protocol imposed some new checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The DUP, which had backed Brexit, has argued the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.

As a result, in February 2022, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister, collapsing the executive.

Since May’s election the party has continued this protest.

Has there been any movement on the protocol?

Talks have taken place between the UK and the EU about the outworkings of the protocol, with both sides expressing hope that a negotiated solution could be found to minimise the impact on trade to Northern Ireland.

None of the Northern Ireland parties are directly involved in the talks and there has been no indication there will be significant movement on the issue before 28 October.

Alongside the negotiations the UK government is proceeding with a bill in parliament which would override many aspects of the protocol.

The EU has taken legal action against the UK for not enforcing the rules.

Is an election inevitable and when would it be?

The Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has repeatedly said he will call an election if an executive has not been formed by 00:01 BST on 28 October.

If the DUP does not enter into the executive by this date, the current rules state the secretary of state must call a new election “as soon as is practicable”.

This does not mean he must call an election on 28 October – contrary to what he has said.

The rules do stipulate, however, the election must be held within 12 weeks – which would mean the second assembly election in the space of 12 months.

Previous deadlines in Northern Ireland have been adjusted by emergency legislation at Westminster.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,

Chris Heaton-Harris has committed to calling an election if the executive is not established

How can it be averted?

There are a number of scenarios in which an election can be prevented.

If the DUP opted to re-establish the executive by nominating a deputy first minister before Friday then the deadline would not be required and the next expected assembly election would be in 2027.

This does appear unlikely, however, as in repeated statements the DUP has refused to end its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Although talks continue between the UK and the EU, the DUP has so far said its demands had not been satisfied.

The party has also supported the government’s legislation to override parts of the protocol, but this too will not come to a conclusion before Friday.

If the DUP does not change its position, the other option open to the government is the passage of emergency legislation which would scrap or delay the deadline.

This can be brought before Friday.

With more time there could also be the potential for developments in the protocol talks and the potential for the DUP to return to the executive table.

Read more: Stormont crisis explained

Will the new prime minister have a say?

Rishi Sunak may have his own ideas on Northern Ireland policy and the protocol.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed to his position on Tuesday, has repeatedly said he will call an election if there has been no executive formed by Friday.

On Monday, Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker called for the DUP to “choke down” on its stance and form an executive.

However, in a possible softening of the government’s position, he added that an election would be a “waste of time and money”.

The question is if Mr Sunak, facing a busy in-tray in his first week as prime minister, wishes to press ahead with an election or delay it for another day.

What have the other parties said?

Sinn Féin, Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have all urged the DUP to return to the executive table.

They have cited the cost of living crisis and healthcare pressures as reasons why the institutions should return in full.

Since the election, ministers have been limited in their powers and confined within their budgets.

After 28 October, if there has been no change, it will be up to civil servants to take over the running of Stormont’s departments.


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