November 28, 2022

The government is to extend the deadline for holding elections in Northern Ireland and cut the salaries of Stormont Assembly members.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is due to make a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday outlining his next steps in response to the region’s power-sharing crisis.

The failure to form a Stormont ministerial executive after May’s election left the government with a legal responsibility to hold an election by January 19.

Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled out a December election, and asking voters to go to the polls in January would present significant logistical challenges as it would involve campaigning over the festive period.

The AP news agency understands the Secretary of State will extend the current January 19 deadline by six weeks, with an option to extend it by a further six weeks.

It is understood he will take steps to cut MLA pay by around a third.

Mr Heaton-Harris is to hand extra powers to Stormont civil servants to allow them to run the region’s rudderless public services.

He is also expected to confirm plans to pass a budget for Stormont.

The moves, which are expected to be announced later on Wednesday, will require legislation to be drawn up and passed at Westminster.

Mr Heaton-Harris is understood to have informed Stormont parties of his intentions on Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said restoring power-sharing was an “absolute priority” after the issue was the first item on the agenda at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

A DUP boycott of devolved institutions in protest at Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal has prevented the formation of an executive in Belfast.

The region’s biggest unionist party has made clear it will not accept a return to power-sharing until economic barriers in the UK-Northern Ireland trade protocol are removed.

Negotiations between London and Brussels to secure changes to the protocol continue, with both sides discussing the prospect of a deal.

Extending the deadline would increase the likelihood that the talks will produce anything substantial before any election date.

If an agreement were reached on protocol that convinced the DUP to return to a devolved executive, the government would likely come under further pressure to abandon election plans altogether.

The UK and Irish governments are keen to avoid a scenario where Stormont remains in limbo next April, when the 25th anniversary of the historic Good Friday peace agreement will be marked.

Existing legislation gave Stormont parties almost six months to form an executive after the last election in May, in which Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party for the first time.

The deadline for setting up a new executive expired on October 28, at which point the Government assumed a legal responsibility to hold a new poll within 12 weeks.

Despite repeatedly promising to set an election date as the deadline passed, Mr Heaton-Harris backtracked on his pledge, prompting Stormont parties to accuse him of a U-turn.

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