Secretary of State says he will set out next steps for Stormont 'in due course'

Chris Heaton Harris
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said he will set out next steps in dealing with the power-sharing vacuum in Northern Ireland in due course.

He was commenting after meeting with Stormont leaders in Belfast.

He did not speak to the media but released a statement on Tuesday evening.

"I had conversations with party leaders today and expressed how disappointed I am that under current legislation the legal duty now falls on me to call an election.

"I listened to the party leaders' various views on calling that election," he said.

"There are important issues of government to be dealt with due to the absence of ministers.

"I am particularly worried that the Executive has an enormous black hole in its budget, which potentially has serious implications for the delivery of many of Northern Ireland's public services.

"Measures to set a budget will be required in the short term.

"I will provide a further update on next steps in due course."

Following the talks, Stormont leaders said Chris Heaton Harris had provided "no clarity" as to how he will deal with the ongoing political stalemate.

Chris Heaton-Harris failed to set a new date for a poll last Friday, despite repeatedly indicating that he would do so the minute a legislative deadline for calling the vote passed.

Prior to the meetings he said he would potentially make a decision regarding MLAs pay.

Speaking after meeting with the Conservative minister on Tuesday, Sinn Féin's Vice President, Michelle O'Neill, said "he provided no further information as to the u-turn".

Meanwhile DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said "at the moment, neither we nor the people of Northern Ireland know if and when an election will take place".

The 24-week deadline for forming a functioning power-sharing Executive in Belfast following May's election ran out at midnight on Friday.

Once the deadline passed, the UK Government assumed a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks.

Following her meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris, Michelle O'Neill said she is "none the wiser" as to whether he intends to call a poll.

"He didn't say what his next move was.

"But you can't escape the reality that there's a legal obligation on him to call the election.

"Instead, he's created a political vacuum."

The DUP has refused to re-enter a power-sharing executive until its concerns with the Northern Ireland Protocol - a Brexit trade deal agreed between the EU and UK - have been resolved.

On Tuesday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was getting no indication that a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol was near.

"Certainly for the part of the UK Government, we've had no indication at this stage that an agreement is close or imminent," he said.

"There are continuing technical discussions, the political discussions haven't even begun.

"That's why yesterday and today I'm calling on the Government to have a razor-sharp focus on these negotiations. Let's make progress. Let's get this done."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said, however, that her meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris was "constructive".

She said he was "taking time to reflect" before making any decision on an election.

"From our perspective, we welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has listened to what's been said by the people of Northern Ireland, that he has paid attention to the issues that have been raised and he is clearly taking time to reflect on the way forward."

She added her backing to calls for MLA pay to be cut if the current power-sharing deadlock could not be resolved.

Doug Beattie, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party said it's "quite clear" that the protocol is the issue which needs to be resolved.

"We are now reliant here in Northern Ireland as a football between the UK and the EU, for them to come up with some sort of a deal and we don't know where they are, we don't know if they're close to a deal and we don't even know if there are any heads of agreement to a deal, so it's difficult to see where we are heading.

"But if the plan is to have an election, then it's just nonsensical."

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