Questions: Will Northern Ireland go back to the polls?


image source, Getty Images

Crunch talks are being held in Northern Ireland in a last-ditch attempt to avoid a second election in a few months.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is in Belfast to meet party leaders, a day after Rishi Suna confirmed he would stay on as Prime Minister.

According to this, if the executive is not formed before October 28 or if the law is not changed, the parties will once again present their case to the elected officials.

In May, Sinn Féin returned as the largest party in the assembly, however, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocked the functioning of the assembly and the executive government at Stormont, resulting in a deadlock.

BBC News NI assesses how politics in Northern Ireland have come to this point, and whether an election could yet be avoided.

What happened in the May 5 election?

This gave party vice-president Michelle O’Neill the right to take over as prime minister.

The DUP came second but declined to appoint a deputy first minister.

image source, Getty Images
image caption,

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

These roles form a single office at the head of the Northern Ireland Executive, without which the governing body cannot function.

By refusing to nominate, the DUP prevented the formation of an executive.

It also blocked the appointment of the speaker, and the legislature could not meet, form committees or hold ministers to account in the assembly chamber.

What is the deadline for October 28?

Earlier this year, the law was changed in Westminster to buy more time for the Northern Ireland Executive to form after the election.

This was agreed in the New Vision for the New Decade 2020 document and would allow ministers from the previous executive to continue in their roles for 24 weeks.

This, he stated, “would allow a greater continuity of decision-making”.

However, without the Prime Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister, they cannot make decisions that are considered indirect, or that require the support of the entire executive.

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

After the May election, October 28 is the legal deadline for the NI secretary to call an election, unless the executive has reconvened.

What is the DUP’s protest about?

image source, Medium PA
image caption,

The DUP collapsed the executive in February and has blocked its formation since May’s assembly elections.

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

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

However, the protocol introduced some new controls on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The DUP, which supported Brexit, has argued that the protocol has weakened Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.

As a result, in February 2022, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as Prime Minister, bringing down the executive.

The party has continued this protest since the May elections.

Has there been any movement in the protocol?

Talks have been held between the UK and the EU on the workings of the protocol, with both sides expressing hope that a negotiated solution could be found to minimize the impact on trade for Northern Ireland.

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

Alongside the negotiations, the UK government is advancing a bill in parliament that would scrap many aspects of the protocol.

The EU has taken legal action against the UK for non-compliance.

Elections are inevitable and when will they be?

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

If the DUP does not join the executive by this date, current rules say the secretary of state must call a new election “as soon as possible”.

This does not mean that he should call the elections for October 28 – contrary to what he has said.

The rules stipulate, however, that the election must be held within 12 weeks, which would be the second election within a 12-month period.

Northern Ireland’s previous term has been adapted by Westminster’s emergency legislation.

image source, Medium PA
image caption,

Chris Heaton-Harris has pledged to call an election if the executive is not installed

How can it be avoided?

There are several scenarios where the election can be avoided.

If the DUP decided to restore the executive by appointing a deputy prime minister before Friday, there would be no deadline and the next expected election would be in 2027.

However, this seems unlikely, as the DUP has repeatedly refused to end its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Although talks between the UK and the EU continue, the DUP has said that its demands have so far not been met.

The party has also approved government legislation to repeal parts of the protocol, but this too will not be completed before Friday.

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

This can be moved before Friday.

With more time there could also be the possibility of a development in the protocol talks and the possibility of the DUP returning to the executive table.

Read more: Stormont crisis explained

Will the new prime minister have anything to say?

Rishi Suna may have his own ideas about politics and etiquette in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed to his post on Tuesday, has repeatedly said he will call an election if an executive is not formed by Friday.

On Monday, Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker called on the DUP to “stifle” its position and form an executive.

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

The question is whether Mr Sunak, facing a busy slate in his first week as prime minister, wants to go ahead with the election or postpone it for another day.

What have other parties said?

Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) have called for the DUP to return to the executive board.

They have cited the cost of living crisis and healthcare pressures as reasons to return the institution whole.

Since the election, ministers have limited their powers and limited them within budgets.

From October 28, if there is no change, it will be up to civil servants to take charge of Stormont departments.