Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to call election in October if Stormont stalemate remains

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has signalled his intention to call an election in Northern Ireland on 28 October 2022.

Chris Heaton-Harris says he will have no choice but to order a return to the polls if an Executive is not formed by then.

It could mean the public casting their vote as early as December 16, however, the secretary of state could push it back into early in the new year.

The Stormont Assembly collapsed when the DUP removed then First Minister Paul Givan on 3 February in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protocol was agreed between the EU and UK in order to prevent a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but created a border down the Irish Sea and dividing the UK.

A scheduled election was held on 5 May, but the DUP has refused to nominate a speaker, thus blocking the return of Assembly business and allowing for the formation of an Executive.

The party has said it will not return to power sharing until issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.

In February, changes were made to the Northern Ireland Act by the Westminster government to prevent a repeat of the collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland between 2017 and 2020. Under the law 24 weeks can pass after the election without an Executive having been formed before an election can be called.

Since the election the former mandate's Executive ministers have been allowed to remain in place in a caretaker position.

While the UK government says it was an agreement with the EU on the protocol, it has also tabled a bill through parliament aimed at ripping up parts of the deal.

Mr Heaton-Harris said there was no parliamentary time to change the law in regard to calling an election.

“I’m under a legal obligation, there is going to be an election and I will have to call an election on 28 October if there is no Executive,” Mr Heaton-Harris told reporters on Wednesday.

“That decision is a very straightforward one as far as I see it.

"Yes it is a very small period of time in which to get things moving and yes there are important discussions between London and Brussels as well as Simon (Coveney, Irish Foreign Minister) and myself. But these discussion can move forward, I’m really confident that they will move forward. The mood music that everybody seems to talk about is seemingly very positive.

“We now have to make sure that that music turns into something much more fundamental and that there is some sort of agreement that allows all parties to reform the Executive.”

The Secretary of State was speaking after meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney at Hillsborough Castle.

Mr Coveney took aim at the DUP by stating the protocol was not halting the formation of an Executive.

“There is no legal obligation of course on the UK and the EU to have an agreement on the protocol before an Executive can be formed – that is a political choice that one party has decided to make,” he said.

“That is a choice that is there, that has been made by one party. All the parties want devolved government to get up and running yesterday.

“There is no one simple solution here and I think that’s where politics has to be both flexible and intelligent enough to find a way of addressing the genuine concerns with unionist communities around the protocol and its impact on Northern Ireland and how we can respond in a way to that that they believe.

“And also how can we remind everyone that there are issues at play here too in terms of families in Northern Ireland in regards of all of the other issues.

“Because it’s not all about one issue. Let’s not put ourselves into a straightjacket too early to say it’s either all or nothing and let’s try to find a way forward that allows us before the end of October that an Executive needs to be formed and should be formed to avoid an election.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.