'resisting calls' | 

NI Secretary of State ‘playing hard ball’ over prospects of pre-Christmas election

The DUP’s refusal to nominate a Deputy First Minister in protest over the Protocol has blocked any attempt to form an Executive

Chris Heaton-Harris© PA

Paula Mackin.Sunday World

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is playing hard ball over the prospect of a pre-Christmas election.

The Sunday World understands the newly-appointed Cabinet minister is resisting calls from political leaders to reconsider his intention to call a fresh poll on October 28.

That’s the date that marks six months since the last poll which saw Sinn Fein take over as the Assembly’s largest party.

But the DUP’s refusal to nominate a Deputy First Minister in protest over the Protocol has blocked any attempt to form an Executive.

Party chiefs have viewed the prospect of winter election campaign with alarm, particularly in the teeth of an economic crisis.

But Mr Heaton-Harris has so far resisted calls for him to reconsider.

Sinn Fein’s First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill said people should not be made to go to the polls before Christmas.

She repeated he calls for the restoration of power sharing as she prepared to meet a senior US government official.

Derek Chollet, counsellor with the US Department of State, met with political leaders at Stormont on Monday.

But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has reiterated his warning that his party will not return to the Assembly or Executive until his demands are met on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

And at his party conference at the weekend he said his party was prepared for an election campaign and was hopeful they would retake their position as the largest party.

He also repeated calls for unionist unity with agreed candidates to stand in marginal constituencies.

The UK Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by way of a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation that would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

Relations between the UK and EU appear to have improved since Liz Truss became Prime Minister and London and Brussels have been talking up the potential for a deal through fresh negotiations.

Current legislation says that unless Stormont is restored by October 28, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has to call fresh assembly elections, something he has said he is prepared to do.

“He's (Derek Chollet) coming at a time where we're obviously hurtling towards the October 28 deadline and we have to have an Executive formed by that time,” said Ms O’Neill..

“I very much welcome the part the United States has always played and being a big supporter and aid to our peace process.

“We need to get around the Executive table today, no more delays. Particularly whenever you see the scale of challenges that we have to tackle as an executive, not least fixing our health service.”

Asked about the potential for an election before Christmas, Ms O'Neill said: “We shouldn't have to have an election. We had an election back in May.

“The people spoke, and the people asked for a functioning executive, they asked for us to make politics work.

“And they asked for us to work together to deliver for them. That's where I remain committed. That's where I want to be.”

Ms O'Neill encouraged the UK Government and the EU to come to an agreement within the framework of the protocol.

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