Northern Ireland’s political deadlock deepened Friday when the U.K. government delayed calling an early election for the Belfast-based Assembly after a deadline to restore the mothballed administration expired.
The limbo means more uncertainty and delays to government decision-making at a time when many people in Northern Ireland are struggling with soaring food and energy prices.
A deadline for the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect a governing executive passed at midnight Thursday amid a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules. Under the rules of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing politics, a new election must be held within 12 weeks. Civil servants will keep essential services running in the meantime.
U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had been expected to announce a mid-December poll date. Instead, he said he was holding talks with the main political parties.
“I hear when parties say they really do not want an election at all,” he said. But he added that under the political rules he had “limited options.”
“I am still going to be calling an election,” Heaton-Harris said.
“This is a really serious situation,” he added. “As of a minute past midnight last night there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive. I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure that public services do continue to run and to protect the public finances, but there is a limit to what (I) can do.”
Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly met Thursday but failed to elect a speaker, the first step toward restoring a government that has been on ice since an election in May. Attempts to nominate a speaker were blocked by the biggest British unionist body, the Democratic Unionist Party, as part of its protest over post-Brexit customs checks that unionists see as undermining Northern Ireland’s British identity.
The crisis comes at a time of change in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. with two main communities: mostly Protestant unionists who consider themselves British and largely Roman Catholic nationalists who see themselves as Irish.
In May’s election, Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein — which seeks Northern Ireland’s union with Ireland — for the first time became the largest party in the 90-seat assembly, entitling it to fill the post of first minister. The DUP came second.
Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, accused the U.K. government of “doing a bizarre 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’s not acceptable.”
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with a European Union member — Ireland. When Britain left the bloc in 2020, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Instead, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
That solution has spiraled into a political crisis, with unionist politicians refusing to form a government, claiming that the checks as undermining their British identity. The DUP wants the Brexit protocol scrapped, but most other parties in Northern Ireland want to keep it, with tweaks to ease the burden on businesses.
The U.K. and the European Union so far have held fruitless negotiations about finding a solution.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Northern Ireland does not need a “polarizing election.”
“If the secretary of state wants to hold an election, then he should tell us and we will prepare for that election,” Donaldson said. “But if not, then let’s focus on what really needs to be done, which is to find a solution that restores Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”