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Fresh deadline set for resurrecting powersharing at Stormont

A fresh deadline has been set for February 8 (Liam McBurney/PA)
A fresh deadline has been set for February 8 (Liam McBurney/PA)

A new deadline for resurrecting a powersharing executive at Stormont has been set for February 8.

The Government will introduce a short one-line Bill at Westminster on Wednesday to set the new date after the last one lapsed on January 18.

Under legislation governing the formation of a devolved administration in Belfast, the Government assumes a legal duty to call a snap assembly election once a deadline for forming a ministerial executive is passed.

However, in the face of a series of missed deadlines in the current powersharing impasse, the Government has repeatedly opted to pass fresh legislation to set new deadlines, rather than opting for an election.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will do so again on Wednesday, albeit with a relatively short extension this time.

The move suggests the Government remains hopeful that a settlement can be reached within the next two weeks to enable powersharing to return to Northern Ireland.

The devolved institutions at Stormont have been collapsed for almost two years as a result of a DUP boycott in protest against the post-Brexit trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Senior DUP figures held discussions on Friday amid mounting speculation that the unionist party was preparing to make a call on whether or not to accept a Government deal aimed at addressing its concerns over trade and sovereignty.

Ultimately, no decision was taken at that meeting, with party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson dismissing suggestions that it was a make-or-break encounter.

However, party insiders maintain that the moment for the DUP to pass final judgment on the Government’s offer is approaching.

Announcing the fresh deadline, Mr Heaton-Harris said on Tuesday: “Tomorrow I will be introducing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to allow for the reformation of Stormont.

“The Bill only has a single clause: to extend the period of time Stormont can legitimately come back until February 8.

“I am committed to restoring devolution and significant progress has been made towards that objective. I believe that this Bill, with the constrained timescales, will be sufficient.”

On Monday, Sir Jeffrey said an agreement with the Government over post-Brexit trading arrangements has still not been reached.

Instead, he said he will meet the Government again this week to address remaining concerns over the Windsor Framework that governs the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey must secure the backing of his party officers, and it is understood several of them believe the Government’s offer does not go far enough to warrant the party dropping its blockade on Stormont.

The impasse comes amid a period of significant industrial action by public sector workers angry that a delayed pay award has been awarded amid Stormont’s political stand-off. The region last week witnessed the biggest mass strike in a generation as tens of thousands walked out in protest at the ongoing failure to introduce a pay rise.

After the new deadline was confirmed, a DUP spokesman made clear a deal to restore Stormont had not yet been secured.

“The introduction of this Bill by the Secretary of State is recognition that, while significant progress has been made, to date an agreement has not been reached,” he said.

“We will continue to engage with the Government as we seek to successfully finalise all the remaining outstanding issues between us. We are working to that end.

“The Government knows our view that it is only when we have resolved the remaining outstanding issues that we will be able to bring about the necessary conditions for the return of devolved government.”

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said it was “decision time” for the DUP.

“People have rightly had enough of the DUPs inaction,” she said.

“They need mature and positive leadership focused on delivering for them.

“My message to the DUP is to work with us, get round the executive table and make a difference to people’s lives.

“Thousands of public sector workers educating our children, caring for patients in our hospitals and running our transport services are once again being forced to take industrial action for the pay rises being denied to them.

“It is time for action. Workers and their families cannot be left in the lurch any longer. The DUP leader should do the right thing and restore the democratic institutions.”

The SDLP said it would to amend the legislation being tabled by the Government to introduce a reform to powersharing structures that would remove that ability of any party to veto the functioning of the Assembly.

The party will propose a further amendment that would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to deliver a stalled pay award for public sector workers in Northern Ireland.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “People are beyond sick of hearing the same old statements about progress in the exclusive negotiations between the DUP and the British Government with nothing to show for it.

“The hard reality is that the only thing they’ve delivered is worse living standards for people across the north, an unprecedented period of industrial action and the further erosion of public services. Enough is enough.

“We are prepared to give the space for a deal to be done but people won’t be strung along forever.”

A loyalist activist group has launched a campaign calling on unionist politicians to remain out of Stormont until the so-called Irish Sea trade border has been removed.

Let’s Talk Loyalism has created a letter template for voters to send to unionist elected representatives that to return to Stormont without such a commitment would be a “dishonourable act of treachery”.