Stormont may not return until 2024 after secretary of state extends deadline for reforming Executive

Devolved government in Northern Ireland could remain in limbo until next year after the deadline for reforming the Stormont Executive has been extended until January 2024.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris announced the extension on Thursday.

He said having spoken to the parties, "another election at this time is not the best course of action to facilitate the restoration of the Executive".

The secretary of state is holding round-table talks with the Stormont parties in Belfast on Thursday afternoon.

Going into the talks, UUP Leader Doug Beattie said the announcement of the extension to the deadline brings "clarity".

Mr Beattie said: "Some people will criticise that it has been pushed back by a year, but actually what it has done is it has given us time and space and clarity.

"So we can work towards getting a sustainable deal in regards the Protocol and Assembly, so we can go forward with a sense of purpose."

SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O'Toole said: "There was an election last May. People returned parties to form an executive. That needs to happen now."

Mr Heaton-Harris said the Government is introducing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to extend the timeframe for parties to form an Executive to 18 January 2024.

"Over a year has passed since the then First Minister of Northern Ireland resigned," said the secretary of state.

"Twelve months and one Assembly election later, it is disappointing that people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved institutions that they deserve."

Chris Heaton-Harris continued: "The restoration of the Executive, in line with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, remains my top priority.

"I will continue to do all I can to help the Northern Ireland Parties work together to make that happen.

"It was on that basis that we legislated in the autumn to extend the Executive formation period through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022.

"Since that period ended on 20 January 2023, I have once again been under a statutory duty to hold an Assembly election within 12 weeks (that is on or before 13 April 2023).

"Having spoken to political representatives, businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, I have concluded that another election at this time is not the best course of action to facilitate the restoration of the Executive.

"On that basis, this Bill will provide for a single retrospective extension of the Executive formation period of one year from 19 January 2023.

"That would mean that, if the Parties are unable to form an Executive before 19 January 2024, I would again fall under a duty to hold an Assembly election within 12 weeks.

"The legislation will also enable the Government to bring this new period to an early end and move to elections sooner, if necessary.

"Yesterday, in a meeting with Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Šefčovič in Brussels, I reiterated that the UK Government is working hard to resolve the problems caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the desire to see an agreed solution with the EU.

"I was clear that this extension does not influence Protocol discussions.

"I remain focused on restoring devolved institutions as soon as possible and this Bill creates the best opportunity to do that.

"l will continue to do all I can to support the people of Northern Ireland in the meantime. I will also host NI Party leaders at a roundtable in Belfast today to urge them to restore the Executive as soon as possible.

"I very much hope that the Parties will recognise the importance of getting back to work, so that a functioning Executive can take the actions needed, to address the challenges facing public services in Northern Ireland."

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