27 Sept 2022

Pre-Christmas Assembly election would be ‘absolutely diabolical’ – Beattie

Pre-Christmas Assembly election would be ‘absolutely diabolical’ – Beattie

The prospect of a pre-Christmas Northern Ireland Assembly election is “absolutely diabolical”, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has said.

Mr Beattie was speaking following a meeting with new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, which concentrated on how to restore the Stormont Assembly and deal with the cost-of-living crisis.

Mr Beattie said he hoped that some goodwill created by the death of the Queen could be used in new negotiations between the EU and UK over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

Meanwhile, a DUP minister has said the focus should not be on an early election, but rather sorting out problems caused by the protocol.

The DUP is blocking the functioning of the power-sharing institutions in Belfast as part of the party’s protest against the trading arrangement.

Political opponents have heavily criticised the DUP boycott, insisting it is hampering efforts to support families struggling amid the cost-of-living crisis.

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

Current rules stipulate that without a functioning Executive, ministers must stand down on October 28 and the Government call an election within 12 weeks.

Mr Beattie said: “That means there has to be an election by January 19.

“That is the process. There is no other process so we would expect to have an election on either December 8 or 15.

“I think it is absolutely diabolical that we are going to go back out to put posters up, knocking on doors to tell people to vote for us in the cost-of-living crisis, when people are sitting in their homes hungry and cold and we are asking them for a vote when we have already failed them.

“I think an election in the winter would be absolutely diabolical, but if that is what has to happen that is what will happen.”

Asked if he thought the Government could introduce legislation to defer a winter Stormont election, Mr Beattie said: “I don’t get a sense they are going to do that.

“If you were going to change that it would take primary legislation and I don’t see any appetite for that.”

He added: “I got a sense that the sad circumstances of the last number of days has created a degree of goodwill and there is going to be new impetus put into negotiations between the UK and the EU in regards to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and a change in language I think.

“Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, but having no executive is incredibly difficult.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long had a phone conversation with Mr Heaton-Harris on Tuesday, and he is scheduled to meet SDLP leader Colum Eastwood in London later this week.

Asked about the prospect of an early election, DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said: “Ultimately, that is a decision for the Secretary of State and the Government to make.

“I think instead of focusing on an election right now, what we should be focusing on is getting a solution to the problems that we face because an election could come and go again.

“But that doesn’t ultimately solve the problems that we are facing.

“So let’s make sure that we can sort out the problems that we have right now let’s deal with the protocol and the issues that it is causing.

“I would rather see that done in a negotiated way where people come together and try and that out.

“The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is there and I hope that in the absence of a negotiated outcome that it makes its way through Parliament and that it gets enacted.”

Mr Heaton-Harris, who replaced Shailash Vara two weeks ago as part of Liz Truss’s new cabinet, has previously said the restoration of Stormont’s ministerial executive is his priority in his new role.

He met Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson shortly before the death of the Queen led to the pausing of political negotiations.

He had been criticised at the time for not meeting the smaller parties.

Ms O’Neill said she had stressed to Mr Heaton-Harris that people in Northern Ireland are desperate for the restoration of the Executive, while Sir Jeffrey insisted his party was under no pressure from the Government to re-enter power-sharing.

The new Secretary of State also met King Charles last week when the new monarch visited Hillsborough Castle.

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