DUBLIN — Britain’s new Northern Ireland secretary says he’ll have no choice but to call a snap Stormont election next month if the Democratic Unionist Party keeps obstructing the region’s cross-community government.
Speaking alongside Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Chris Heaton-Harris said time was rapidly running out before he faces “a legal obligation” to set a date for a new Northern Ireland Assembly contest. Such an election could be held anytime between mid-December and late January, a window already being explored by electoral officials.
The Irish republican Sinn Féin party overtook the DUP in May’s election for seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP since has used its retained status as the largest unionist party to prevent Stormont from electing an assembly speaker or new leaders for the previous five-party government — threatening the central institution created by the region’s 1998 peace settlement.
“I’ll have to call an election on the 28th of October if there is no executive. That is just a fact,” Heaton-Harris told reporters outside Hillsborough Castle, the royal estate near Belfast that he now calls home.
The deadline is implicit in U.K. legislation passed in February — days after the Democratic Unionist first minister resigned in protest against the post-Brexit trade protocol for Northern Ireland. That treaty, agreed by the U.K. and EU as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, requires EU checks on British goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland ports, rather than when they cross the EU land border with the Republic of Ireland.
Westminster’s amended power-sharing rules gave Stormont up to 24 weeks following an election to form a new executive. While that move was intended to avoid any immediate crisis – previously Stormont had only a two-week window for government formation –the Democratic Unionists have used the longer time period simply to drag out the deadlock.
When asked if Britain might pass emergency legislation to postpone a snap election, Heaton-Harris appeared to rule that out.
“I don’t think there’s any time to do that in our parliamentary system. There is going to be an election on the 28th…,” he said, before correcting himself to say he would have to set the date for a Stormont vote that day.
The DUP insists it will keep blocking formation of a new Northern Ireland government until the U.K. unilaterally abandons its protocol treaty with the EU, a prospect contained within the government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
Responding to the secretary of state’s comments on a potential snap election, Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson called on the U.K. government to “expedite” passage of the bill.
“Those seeking to delay and derail the bill are only delaying the return of devolution,” Donaldson said. “We have a mandate for our opposition to the protocol and it must be respected.”
But many lawmakers and analysts think the DUP’s real problem is serving in any administration as second banana to Sinn Féin.
A rerun of May’s election would give the DUP at least a chance to regain its lost status as the biggest assembly party. The top party takes the first ministership and up to three other posts in the 10-member executive.
Under the current Stormont arithmetic, the DUP must settle for the deputy role and risk losing at least one of the two most protocol-sensitive departments: agriculture and economy.
The agriculture portfolio allows the DUP to hamstring enforcement of EU-required checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports, the key protocol battleground. Over the past year, DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has used his office to block recruitment of inspection staff and construction of border control posts. An EU audit found that this lack of resources made it impossible to police the flow of goods through the ports.
Less remarked on is DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons’ oversight of Northern Ireland’s foreign direct investment agency, Invest NI, which offers little in the way of positive protocol messaging to would-be investors in its online sales pitch. A Sinn Féin-led Department of the Economy would be expected to tout Northern Ireland as a low-cost location for U.S. firms to export barrier-free into the EU, a key protocol benefit.