Northern Ireland power sharing slips to 2023 as few relish a winter election

The UK has given a six-month deadline for the Northern Ireland protocol row to be resolved, indicating Liz Truss is far more relaxed about the absence of a devolved government in Stormont than previously indicated.

An April 2023 date for the resolution of the Brexit row emerged after a meeting between the prime minister and the US president, Joe Biden, and would coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday agreement.

But the deadline extension means power sharing in Northern Ireland is, in effect, paused until next year despite legislation requiring elections this year if the parties cannot agree to return to Stormont.

Parties elected in May were given 24 weeks, or until 28 October, to form a new executive at Stormont, but the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has been boycotting power sharing until the Northern Ireland protocol row is resolved.

The April deadline creates a challenge for the newly appointed Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris.

Under legislation brought in by his predecessor, Brandon Lewis, he is obliged to call a Northern Ireland assembly election if an executive is not formed by 28 October.

This week, on his second only visit to Northern Ireland, he said that is exactly what he would do.

“It’s not an idle threat – it’s not a threat at all. It’s a fact that the legislation says that I need to do that on 28 October,” he said.

Few, however, believe that can now happen.

None of the parties want a Christmas election. The Ulster Unionist party leader, Doug Beattie, described the prospect of a winter election as “absolutely diabolical”.

Census results released on Thursday showed Catholics outnumbered Protestants for the first time in the 100-year history of Northern Ireland.

Jon Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics at Liverpool University, said this confirmed that the religious basis for the state was no longer there.

However, it doesn’t mean unionism would be eliminated in the next election.

The census figures show that the majority of passport holders hold a British document, and that 17% of people do not identify with any religion, underlining the power of the centrist Alliance party, which came second in May’s election.

Tonge said: “All a Christmas election would do is help Sinn Féin further crush the SDLP. It would perhaps allow the DUP to win back some votes from the Traditional Unionist Voice but we would end up with the same standoff over the protocol.”

It appears likely that Heaton-Harris will legislate to extend the 24-week deadline to form an executive at Stormont, rather than force a new election.

Does this all mean a protocol resolution is more likely, and can the US be the broker of such a deal? Tonge said both Biden and Truss were “pledging absolute fidelity to the Good Friday agreement”, but those pledges meant different things to each side. The British side was focused on getting the DUP back into Stormont and more compromises from the EU, while the US was focused on the Irish perspective.

We can expect forked tongues in the next few weeks. Truss wants a negotiated deal and has limited bandwidth for Northern Ireland, but will keep the Brexit fire burning for domestic party reasons. “She is not going to be throwing flowers and love at the EU at her first party conference as prime minister,” Tonge said.