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Northern Ireland to hold election within 12 weeks

October 28, 2022

A fresh election, the second within months, is set to be held in Northern Ireland after politicians failed to resolve a standoff over post-Brexit trade rules.

Parliament Buildings at Stormont Estate in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Stormont is the seat of the devolved parliament in Northern IrelandImage: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

The UK government on Friday decided to call an election for  Northern Ireland's devolved assembly after politicians there failed to break a political impasse and form a new unity government.

The minister responsible for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris said he had a legal duty to call an election within 12 weeks but has not yet decided when.

He said he would provide more details next week and would continue to talk to the parties before then. 

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly failed to elect a speaker before a legal deadline on Thursday.

It would have been the first step toward restoring a government that splits power between Irish nationalists and British unionists.

Political stalemate prevented power-sharing

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since February when the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew from the power-sharing government.

The Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, then swept to a historic victory in assembly elections in May, entitling it to fill the post of the first minister.

However, the DUP, who came second, has refused to help form a government in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

They argued the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by London and the European Union as part of Britain's 2019 Brexit deal undermines Northern Ireland's position in the UK.

On Thursday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party could not "nominate ministers to an executive that is required to impose a protocol that harms our economy, harms our people and prevents us getting access to medicines and other vital supplies from the rest of the United Kingdom."

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill, who would likely been the new first minister, condemned the DUP's "perpetual standoff with the public, the majority of whom they do not speak for or indeed represent."

Politicians from other parties also expressed dismay at the gridlock.

Northern Ireland Protocol reviewed

Britain and the EU resumed talks earlier this month on how to change the protocol that was agreed by London and Brussels as part of Britain's 2019 Brexit deal but remains a sticking point

The EU has indicated an openness to easing some of the checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.

But the DUP insists there should be no restrictions on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom at all, something the EU has said it will not accept.

The protocol was agreed to avoid the return of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member.

Eliminating that hard border was a key strand of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The DUP insists the protocol must be addressed before it would join any power-sharing structure.

A prolonged stalemate would likely lead to more decisions being made in London, setting the stage for a dispute between the pro-Irish nationalist community and those in favor of continued union with Britain.

lo/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)