DUBLIN — Northern Ireland will not face a pre-Christmas snap election — and may not face one until there’s a new Brexit breakthrough with the EU, U.K. officials have told POLITICO.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris on Friday postponed election plans — a U-turn first reported by POLITICO’s London Playbook — after previously insisting he would immediately call a new Northern Ireland Assembly election following last week’s collapse of Stormont.
Heaton-Harris’ aides had strongly briefed that the election would happen on December 15, barely seven months after the Irish republican Sinn Féin party topped the vote in the last assembly contest. Electoral officials had already mobilized 6,000 volunteers to staff 607 polling stations on December 15.
Instead, following consultations with the Irish government and local parties, Heaton-Harris announced Friday that no election would happen “ahead of the festive season.”
The secretary of state emphasized that he still faced a legal obligation to call a new vote based on “current legislation” — a signal that the U.K. was likely to escape that obligation by amending the law.
“Current legislation requires me to name a date for an election to take place within 12 weeks of 28 October. Next week I will make a statement in parliament to lay out my next steps,” he said.
While Heaton-Harris still retains legal wiggle room to hold a Stormont election up to January 19, officials in Belfast said this would not happen, given it would require parties to campaign door to door over Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
This means new rules will have to be passed. The officials, who spoke to POLITICO on condition they were not identified, said the U.K. government is preparing draft legislation to amend the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act for the second time in a year.
That act was last overhauled in February to give the assembly up to 24 weeks to form a cross-community government following an election. Otherwise, as amended, a new vote must be held following the expiry of that 24-week window — the rule now being delayed, and potentially overwritten again, by London.
One Belfast official said the most likely scenario would be to give Heaton-Harris new flexibility to set the next election date at a time when wider conditions suit it. This would allow a Stormont election re-run to be delayed indefinitely.
A focus of popular speculation is May 4, when Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. are already scheduled to hold elections to local councils.
By then, all sides hope, London and Brussels will have successfully concluded negotiations to reform how post-Brexit trade rules are enforced at Northern Irish ports — the dispute that has gridlocked power-sharing at Stormont. Those talks resumed at a technical level last month but have reported little progress.
“An agreement with the European Commission on revised arrangements for the [Northern Ireland trade] protocol would substantially improve the atmosphere and context for an assembly election,” one official said.
The main pro-British party, the Democratic Unionists, have insisted they won’t resume cooperation with Sinn Féin until authorities stop enforcing EU checks on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K., saying this so-called “Irish Sea border” undermines that union and pushes Northern Ireland toward an economic united Ireland.
In Dublin, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the U.K. policy reversal because he said it “creates space for progress on other matters.”
So did Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who called for the U.K. government to pursue “a razor-sharp focus on getting a solution, whether by negotiation or legislation.”
Donaldson was referring to the DUP-backed Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which proposes to give the U.K. unilateral powers to override its commitments as part of the Brexit exit deal with the EU. That bill currently faces substantial opposition and likely amendment in the House of Lords amid fears that, if enacted, it could trigger a wider trade conflict with Europe.
Heaton-Harris, who was appointed by former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss to the diplomatically treacherous Belfast post in September, survived last month’s reshuffle when Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street.
But senior Northern Ireland politicians and former secretaries of state questioned whether he could survive such a fundamental mishandling of his first policy decision.
“When you make a call, you have to make it stand. Now nobody knows where the secretary of state stands,” said Shaun Woodward, who was Labour’s last secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He described the Northern Ireland Office’s election signals as “a theater of the absurd.”
“Nobody thought an election would resolve anything,” said Peter Hain, Woodward’s predecessor at the NIO, who in 2007 oversaw the creation of the first DUP-Sinn Féin coalition government at Stormont, a watershed moment in the peace process. “I don’t think the secretary of state or the government know what they’re doing.”
John O’Dowd of Sinn Féin, who was infrastructure minister in Stormont’s caretaker power-sharing government, said Heaton-Harris “has made Liz Truss look competent and I thought that was impossible.”
Repeatedly in the run-up to Stormont’s inevitable collapse on October 28, when asked whether the government would change the 24-week rule to prevent this, Heaton-Harris claimed to have no choice in the matter and would call a new vote once the clock struck midnight.
After allowing Stormont to shut, he botched his first post-election comments, insisting after a day of confusion that a vote still would happen on an unknown date — and denied, when directly asked, that he was about to change course.
Friday’s handbrake turn followed meetings with the leaders of four Northern Ireland parties Tuesday and Coveney on Wednesday. All advised him to avoid an election and focus on a resolution of the U.K.-EU dispute over the trade protocol.
Some party leaders said a 2023 Stormont vote might be meaningful — if London and Brussels had agreed a solution to the dispute over trade rules before it happens.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, whose moderate party opposes the protocol but also rejects the DUP’s obstruction of Stormont power-sharing, said he wasn’t willing to “stick the boot into the secretary of state” and thinks Heaton-Harris retains enough credibility to stay in post.
“It takes political courage to change your mind when you get something wrong,” Beattie said, adding that the 24-week rule on government formation “was too prescriptive anyway.”