DUP unmoved by last-ditch attempt to restore Northern Ireland assembly

Northern Ireland’s secretary of state on Wednesday made a last-ditch effort to avert an assembly election before Christmas following months of political deadlock.

But Chris Heaton-Harris’s hopes of a breakthrough before Friday were dashed by the Democratic Unionist party, which has been boycotting the executive since May over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

“I’m not afraid to take my case to the people,” DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters in London after a video call with Heaton-Harris, adding that he had just been finalising his party’s electoral literature.

Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed to his post by new prime minister Rishi Sunak, had committed to calling an election unless the power-sharing executive is restored by one minute past midnight on October 28, the legal deadline.

“My priority is for NI’s political leaders to come together and restore the executive,” he tweeted ahead of talks with other parties in Belfast on Wednesday. “However, if the parties will not re-form, I will call an election.”

Heaton-Harris has said he sees no space for emergency legislation to delay a vote. Officials have begun planning for a likely poll on December 15.

The last elections in May were won by the pro-Irish unity Sinn Féin party. However, the DUP has since vetoed the formation of an executive and boycotted the Stormont assembly until its demand to scrap a post-Brexit Irish Sea customs border — the so-called Northern Ireland protocol — is heeded.

“Frankly, I don’t think it [an election] helps us to get any quicker towards the solution that we need or to get the institutions back up and running,” Donaldson said.

If the executive is not restored by Friday, caretaker ministers will be replaced by civil servants with limited powers who will remain in place until a new executive can be formed. The paralysis at Stormont has added to a £700mn hole in the region’s budget.

The deadline for a second election is January 19 but few believe that a second vote will ease the stand-off. “It’s an absolute farce,” Orla Smyth, owner of Belfast coffee shop chain Kaffe O, told BBC Radio Ulster.

If the deadlock is not broken, Sinn Féin said Dublin must be granted joint authority with London to govern the region, rather than direct rule from Westminster, but unionist parties have ruled out such a prospect.

The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 1,000 business members, said the region was at a “tipping point”.

The speaker of the Stormont assembly has recalled legislators to return on midday Thursday to try to elect a new speaker, in an attempt to form an executive before Friday’s deadline, but the move is widely expected to fail.

Separately Sunak has committed to proceeding with legislation to overturn the protocol, part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal,

However, Sunak said this would take place in parallel with talks with the EU to find a negotiated settlement. As chancellor, Sunak argued in cabinet against provoking a possible trade war with Britain’s closest trading partner over the Northern Ireland issue, because of the economic damage it would cause.

Steve Baker, who was waiting to hear if he had been reappointed Northern Ireland office minister, urged the DUP this week to “just . . . find it within themselves to choke down the position they’ve taken” and trust London to negotiate a good deal with Brussels.

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