Northern Ireland Secretary Shailesh Vara ‘determined to avoid fresh Stormont elections’

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The Stormont Assembly has not sat since February. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Northern Ireland Secretary Shailesh Vara said he is determined to avoid a fresh Stormont election in the autumn.

He stressed that he is not afraid to take tough decisions and that the option of cutting MLAs’ pay is “on the table”.

The Stormont Assembly has not sat since February, when the DUP withdrew ministers, calling for the UK Government to act on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party has remained firm, resisting a number of attempts to resuscitate the power sharing institutions.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson Credit: PA

The Assembly will sit next Tuesday to attempt for the third time this year to elect a new speaker following a recall motion by the SDLP.

However the DUP has not indicated it will back the bid.

Mr Vara said there is going to have to be “some serious thinking” before the end of October.

“I am determined to do everything I possibly can to make sure that an election is not called,” he told media during a visit to Atlas Women’s Centre in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

“I want to work with all the political parties to make sure that we can move forward, but if tough decisions have to be taken then you will find that this Secretary of State is not afraid to take them.”

Asked would he cut MLAs’ pay, he said that is “on the table”.

Mr Vara visited the Atlas Women’s Centre in Lisburn. Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

“I’m not ruling anything out but I’m very much hoping that very soon we can get heads together and that that executive will be running, but nothing is being ruled out.”

Mr Vara added: “My immediate priority is to get everyone to think about the 1.9 million people in Northern Ireland who are desperately wanting to have decisions made.

“Right now there is £400 million that is just sitting waiting to be spent, and that money can be spent by the Northern Ireland Executive but it isn’t sitting, and that money can help people when they desperately need it.

“We are in extraordinarily difficult circumstances right now, we have the post-pandemic period, we have the knock-on effect of the Ukraine war, there are supply chains that are having difficulties, there are rising prices in terms of cost of living … these are real issues that are affecting people on a daily basis.

“I want to see all the politicians working together to make sure that those real issues that are affecting the citizens of Northern Ireland are dealt with because that’s important.”

On Wednesday evening the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would effectively over-ride parts of the post-Brexit settlement, moved closer to becoming law.

Mr Vara said the UK Government is keen to have a negotiated settlement with the European Union over the protocol.

But he said that after 18 months of negotiations, 300 hours of officials talking, 26 separate meetings between Lord Frost with his EU counterparts, and 17 separate papers, it is “difficult” when they are told “sorry the deal has been signed up already and that’s it”.

“What we really need is a can-do attitude so that when people are sitting at that table, rather than drawing lines and saying I’m not moving beyond this, what I’d like to see is for them to say, ‘there are nearly 1.9 million people who are affected by this, we need to do the best we can for them so we that can move this to the side and we can deal with so many other issues that need to be addressed’,” he said.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss who have made it through to the final two in the Tory leadership race Credit: PA

Mr Vara has been in the role for just a number of weeks following the resignation of Brandon Lewis in a Cabinet revolt against Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He declined to say whether he would back remaining Conservative Party leadership contenders Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss to be the next leader.

He said he has raised Northern Ireland with both of them, adding: “They have made it absolutely clear to me that Northern Ireland is uppermost there and they want to make sure that they get the executive up and running.”