BELFAST — The U.K. government admitted effective defeat Thursday in its efforts to coax Northern Ireland politicians quickly into a new power-sharing government, dropkicking the date for the region’s next assembly election by a full year into 2024.
Thursday’s concession to reality capped months of emphatic but increasingly implausible statements by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who had initially claimed his hands were tied and a rapid-fire new election was unavoidable following the collapse of the region’s cross-community government in October.
A series of legislative amendments followed which extended supposed deadlines in six-week increments. All of these micro-moves have been billed as somehow calibrated to persuade the Democratic Unionists to end their obstruction of government formation at Stormont.
But the DUP — publicly committed to sabotaging Stormont until its demands on changing post-Brexit trade rules are met — hasn’t budged an inch in the face of Heaton-Harris’ threat of a speedy new Northern Ireland Assembly election. Talks between the U.K. and EU on reforming the Withdrawal Agreement’s trade protocol for Northern Ireland appear poised for a breakthrough soon. But the mooted compromises on offer may well fail to meet core DUP demands, leaving the Stormont impasse intact.
“After considering my options, and engaging widely in Northern Ireland, I know that an election in the coming weeks will not be helpful or welcome,” Heaton-Harris said in a statement issued as he introduced new amending legislation that will shift his current election “deadline” of April 13 by 52 weeks.
Heaton-Harris said this move would “create more time for the parties to work together and return to government.”
He noted that the revised rules, scheduled to pass all Commons stages by February 22, would mean he now will not be legally obliged to set a new Northern Ireland Assembly election date until January 18, 2024. Under this new arithmetic, if the DUP hadn’t relented by then, the vote itself would not have to happen for another 12 weeks, up to April 11, 2024.
If such an election ever does happen, it would effectively re-run the May 2022 vote that the Democratic Unionists narrowly lost to their Irish republican arch-rivals, Sinn Féin. Far from fearing such a vote, DUP leaders have told POLITICO they would relish a second chance in hopes of regaining at least some of that lost ground.
Sinn Féin currently holds 27 seats in the mothballed assembly, the DUP has 25. The biggest party is entitled to the top power-sharing post of first minister, a position long possessed by the DUP and never held by Sinn Féin.
But few political number-crunchers, including within DUP ranks, see a clear path for the Democratic Unionists to regain their previous position as the largest assembly party. In the event that the DUP did draw level in the number of seats, Sinn Féin still would hold the likely tie-breaker with a higher share of the popular vote.