Vicki Hawthorne: No tricks or treats as fright night looms for Northern Ireland politicians

Pumpkin season is upon us.
Halloween is coming.

There are two giant pumpkins needing attention in my kitchen. Time is running out to get them carved to the exact specifications of two children who have ever more demanding ideas for how they should look. At least there’s a few more days.

The same can’t be said for Stormont. Halloween is coming early and tonight is fright night for the politicians. At midnight the current situation at Stormont lapses which means if there is no Executive, the ministers who have carried on in a caretaker role since the last election will leave office. The Secretary of State must step in. Under the legislation enacted earlier this year to try to make Stormont more sustainable, an election must take place within 12 weeks. The Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has repeatedly told the political parties and the public that if there is no executive by midnight tonight, it is his legal obligation to call an election. The parties have replied with different versions of “you can’t scare us”, but in truth an election is everyone’s worst nightmare.

The parties all say they are ready for an election, that they are preparing posters, pamphlets, campaigns. But knocking on doors asking for votes on dark days and nights while households are deciding if they can afford to turn the heating on, is a grim prospect for any politician. And one thing many agree on is what will an election actually achieve or change? The DUP says no matter the result, it still won’t go back into government unless and until the Northern Ireland Protocol is fixed. Sinn Fein is likely to be returned as the largest party once more. There had been a view that the Secretary of State was playing a trick, that his plan was a vain attempt to scare the DUP back up the hill. Rules have been rewritten in Northern Ireland politics before, deadlines ignored. A last minute change of legislation or attempt to buy time would be a treat for the parties. But the message to the party leaders yesterday from Chris Heaton-Harris during meetings in Belfast did not change. He told them there will be an election. There was a further statement to the media last night too, saying the same thing. It no longer feels like a trick.

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