UK delays Northern Ireland election call amid Brexit deadlock

LONDON –

Northern Ireland’s political stalemate deepened on Friday when the UK government delayed calling snap elections for the Belfast-based Assembly after the deadline to restore the suspended administration expired.

The limbo means more uncertainty and delays in government decision-making at a time when many people in Northern Ireland are struggling with rising food and energy prices.

The deadline for the Northern Ireland Assembly to choose a government executive fell at midnight on Thursday amid a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules. Under the rules of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing policy, a new election must be held within 12 weeks. Meanwhile, public officials will keep essential services running.

UK Secretary for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris was expected to announce a mid-December vote date. Instead, he said that he was holding talks with the main political parties.

“I listen when parties say they really don’t want an election at all,” he said. But he added that under the political rules he had “limited options.”

“I’m still going to call an election,” Heaton-Harris said.

“This is a really serious situation,” he added. “As of one minute after midnight last night, there are no longer any ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive. I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services continue to function and to protect public finances, but there is a limit.” .to what (I) can do.”

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly met on Thursday but were unable to choose a speaker, the first step towards restoring a government that has been frozen since elections in May. Attempts to nominate a speaker were blocked by Britain’s biggest unionist body, the Democratic Unionist Party, as part of its protest over post-Brexit customs checks that unionists say undermine Northern Ireland’s British identity.

The crisis comes at a time of change in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK with two main communities: mostly Protestant Unionists who consider themselves British and mostly Roman Catholic nationalists who see themselves as Irish.

In elections in May, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, which seeks to unite Northern Ireland with Ireland, became the largest party in the 90-seat assembly for the first time, entitling it to the post. of prime minister. The DUP came in second place.

Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, accused the UK government of “taking a weird U-turn” and leaving people in limbo.

“We have a situation tonight where people just don’t know what’s going to happen next,” O’Neill said. “That is not acceptable.”

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a border with a member of the European Union: Ireland. When Britain left the bloc in 2020, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other controls because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, there are controls on some products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

That solution has turned into a political crisis, with unionist politicians refusing to form a government, claiming the controls undermine their British identity. The DUP wants the Brexit protocol scrapped, but most other parties in Northern Ireland want to keep it, with adjustments to ease the burden on business.

The United Kingdom and the European Union have so far held unsuccessful negotiations to find a solution.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Northern Ireland did not need a “polarizing election”.

“If the secretary of state wants to hold an election, then he should tell us and we’ll prepare for that election,” Donaldson said. “But if not, let’s focus on what really needs to be done, which is to find a solution that restores Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.”

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