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BELFAST — The Northern Ireland Assembly will face an overwhelmingly unwanted election soon following the collapse of power-sharing, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced following a day of mounting confusion and uncertainty.
Heaton-Harris confounded expectations by declining to confirm the widely briefed date of Thursday, December 15, for the new poll. But he denied that any U-turn was in the offing.
“I do not have to call an election immediately … but I will be calling an election,” he told reporters on the street outside the Northern Ireland Office in central Belfast.
“I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all. But nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the rules, the law, that means I need to call an election. So you’ll hear more from me on that particular point next week,” said Heaton-Harris, who took only a few incredulous questions from reporters before a minder whisked him away after four minutes.
If a December 15 election proceeds as is still widely expected, it would come barely seven months since an election to the 90-seat legislature at Stormont produced a breakthrough victory for the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin. That outcome rattled the region’s previous top party, the Democratic Unionists.
Heaton-Harris’ commitment to mount an election rerun had seemed inevitable given weeks of explicit promises that he would take this exact step should the assembly fail to elect a new power-sharing government by Thursday night. He repeatedly billed one minute past midnight Friday as his “deadline” citing current U.K. laws on Belfast power-sharing. These laws were last amended in February to shift previous “deadlines” and buy months of extra life for Northern Ireland’s unraveling five-party coalition.
But an assembly attempt to form a new unity government based on May’s election results failed for a fourth and final time Thursday when the Democratic Unionists — demanding an end to post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland that require EU checks on British goods arriving here — again withheld its mandatory support for continued cooperation.
In consequence, the Northern Ireland Executive’s 10 remaining caretaker ministers were forced from office at midnight, leaving government in this U.K. region of nearly 2 million people in the hands of civil servants. This failure could have been nullified by the U.K. further amending legislation, but it was not forthcoming.
Despite the previous apparent clarity of his position, Heaton-Harris kept the Northern Ireland press pack waiting for hours without guidance.
The inexplicably long delay in responding to an obvious and universally foreseen political problem fueled speculation that Heaton-Harris might do the kind of last-minute U-turn so familiar to veteran observers of Northern Ireland politics.
This is, after all, a place where power-sharing — a core aspiration of the U.K. region’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998 — has proved prone to cycles of instability, crisis, collapse and resurrection. Keeping the lights on at Stormont has frequently spurred secretaries of state to proclaim “deadlines” that melt away at the last moment, creating new space for negotiations.
Heaton-Harris achieved a measure of DUP-Sinn Féin unity. Both leaders blasted his performance Friday as ludicrous.
“The chaos continues,” said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who called on the U.K. to focus on reaching agreement with the EU on changing protocol rules.
“Rather than dithering over an election, what we need now is a focus on getting a solution that enables the restoration of the institutions at Stormont,” Donaldson said.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, who would become first minister based on May’s election result, called Heaton-Harris’ announcement “an entirely bizarre U-turn” that should have been communicated to local parties. “It reflects the chaotic nature of the Tories,” she said.
Even Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVeigh, who did meet Heaton-Harris before his announcement, was left confused by their dialogue. She apologized to the 6,000 volunteers and 607 polling stations, including schools, that have been instructed to be available for December 15.
“I’m sorry that so much uncertainty remains. I know that lots of people have moved things, all kinds of Christmas events,” she told BBC radio in Belfast.
The NIO complicated matters further by announcing Heaton-Harris would address reporters but not permit his remarks to be reported, on a busy public street near Belfast City Hall, for more than an hour.
His faltering, brief performance reinforced a popular Belfast sentiment that this secretary of state — mere weeks into a diplomatically complex job during which he has spent key periods focused on Conservative infighting and Boris Johnson’s doomed leadership revival — doesn’t have a handle on his brief.
“It’s verging on the absurd that we’ve heard so little from him, to make such an aggressive call when he doesn’t appear to have a firm plan,” said Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News, a Belfast newspaper with a predominantly Irish nationalist readership.
“This Tory government has been in chaos for months. It is totally distracted,” agreed Ben Lowry, editor of the rival Belfast News Letter, the main unionist daily. “I’m not seeing a lot of people in this Northern Ireland Office who know much about Northern Ireland.”
In the background, the U.K. and EU continue to discuss how the post-Brexit trade rules should operate in Northern Ireland.
The European Commission’s Maroš Šefčovič and U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly discussed the state of play by phone Thursday. Šefčovič described it as a “good conversation” that failed to reach any agreement.
Earlier this month, Heaton-Harris had expressed hope that Brussels and London could reach a partial agreement this week that would have been sufficient to persuade the DUP to end its obstruction of power-sharing.
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