Former NI Secretary says Assembly election should be postponed until 2023

The next Assembly election should be postponed for a year because of the coronavirus crisis, former secretary of state Julian Smith has said.

Julian Smith told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that more time is needed to tackle educational inequality and housing shortages once the devolved administration's focus shifts from defeating the infection.

The next Stormont poll is currently due to be held in 2022 although Mr Smith has argued that devolved ministers need an extended period to realise their priorities for Government.

His comments been met with opposition however as TUV leader Jim Allister claimed Julian Smith's comments are " clearly wrong."

The former NI Secretary was speaking to the group of MPs on Thursday morning. Credit: NI Affairs Committee

Giving evidence before the NI Affairs Committee, Julian Smith said it would be better to give the Executive more time and after a "decent" period voters may be able to take part in a more meaningful election.

The former cabinet minister acknowledged that polls tend to be dominated by constitutional questions surrounding Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

"I think that as a result of Covid many things that would have happened in the Executive in the weeks following the restoration have obviously been delayed."

The former NI Secretary brokered a deal along with Simon Coveney which saw the restoration of devolved government. Credit: PA Images

Mr Smith and Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney brokered the New Decade, New Approach deal with five Stormont parties which restored powersharing in January after a three-year hiatus.

He was sacked as Northern Ireland secretary by Boris Johnson in February despite enjoying widespread support in the country.

The Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon told the NI Affairs Committee: "People want their services to work and Northern Ireland does work, but I genuinely think that now we have had this crisis we do need to provide time to get those things improved.

"The overarching improvements in health care, the need to start delivering on City Deals (regenerating greater Belfast and Londonderry) and infrastructure projects and the need to look at education and educational inequalities that still exist, the housing deficit."

Mr Allister has claimed that it would be unacceptable to posptone the Assembly elections. Credit: PA Images

TUV leader Jim Allister has hit back at the former NI Secretary's comments.

Mr Allister said: “Julian Smith’s suggestion that the next Assembly election be pushed back to 2023 is clearly wrong. The current Assembly has failed to deliver for the electorate."

He also added that "almost a fifth of MLAs currently occupying the benches have been coopted and therefore have no mandate from the electorate."

The North Antrim MLA said: “If the election is pushed back to 2023 it will be six years since the electorate had their say on the makeup on the Assembly.

"That would be unacceptable and something which would cause deep resentment among the public who already hold Stormont in low esteem."