NORTHERN Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has given October 28 as the deadline for the Stormont executive and institutions to be restored. If there is no progress – and the DUP are still refusing to take part in the Stormont institutions over issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol – then an Assembly election in the North will be called.
Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has already pointed to a commitment by the new Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to call elections if no progress can be made.
But the DUP has stressed it will not return to power sharing unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is abandoned.
However, electorally the DUP are not particularly buoyant in the opinion polls – their vote share is down by 6.7 per cent from the 2017 Assembly election to 21.3 per cent. So the threat of an election could galvanise the party into action and see an agreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Currently Sinn Féin are leading in the polls, with Michelle O’Neill the First Minister elect. But the DUP are also at risk from the Alliance Party, which took two seats from it in the recent Assembly election.
International moves could help resolve the situation in the North. It seems that there is some thawing in relations between the Truss government and the EU. In particular, Liz Truss appears to have struck up some rapport with President Macron of France. This could be very signifi cant, as under the Johnson administration the relationship had sunk to a very low level. Further, arch-Brexiteers such as Steve Baker MP, have gone some way in offering an olive branch to Irish politicians.
Improving relationships between Britain and Ireland and other parts of the EU could see the imbroglio over the Northern Ireland Protocol finally begin to resolve.
An added impetus in the input from the USA. The Biden administration has repeatedly made its policy clear to the British government. According to The Guardian, Derek Chollet, the US Department of State counsellor, has urged improved relations between the UK and Europe “at a time of world instability”.
Chollet urged all sides to “avoid unilateral gestures, including over the Northern Ireland Protocol” according to The Guardian.
He added that the anomalous position of Northern Ireland needed to be fi xed. He said that he knew there were some diffi culties with the protocol and that some adjustments and tweaking were required. But he warned, “We don’t think that unilateral steps are helpful. We want to see the temperature go down on this, and I think, to everyone’s credit, it has in recent weeks.”