Northern Ireland is being handed a lifeline following the failure of Brexit talks, as MPs this evening voted to extend the deadline for an assembly to be formed. The Executive Formation Bill passed its third reading in the commons today. The bill – introduced by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris last week – is being fast-tracked through Parliament, passing all three stages in one day.
An election was triggered in Stormont in October after the executive was blocked from meeting due to the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Bill will extend the deadline for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be formed until December 8, with the possibility of a further six-week extension to January 19.
There has been no functioning government in Stormont since the elections last May, as the DUP has refused to restore power sharing unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is scrapped.
If the DUP does not end its boycott of the Stormont assembly by 8 December, the bill will give Mr Heaton-Harris the option to either call an election or extend the deadline by six weeks to 19 January.
If nothing changes by then, an election could take place by 13 April.
The new legislation also allows the Northern Ireland Secretary to slash Stormont politicians’ salaries and enables civil servants to have limited decision-making powers to ensure public services can still be delivered.
The bill could see wages cut by 27 percent, or just over £14,000, reducing their incomes from £51,500 to £37,337.
Mr Heaton-Harris said it is “not acceptable” that Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) continue to draw full salaries during a cost-of-living crisis despite not sitting.
As MPs considered the measures, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “At a time when taxpayers’ money, and indeed taxpayers themselves, are under enormous strain, it’s simply not acceptable that MLAs continue to draw a full salary whilst unable to conduct the full range of functions for which they were elected.
“These clauses will therefore allow me to amend MLAs’ pay in this and any future periods of inactivity, drawing on sections 47 and 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”
But DUP MP Sammy Wilson previously told Express.co.uk that the Northern Ireland Secretay “has to be very very clear in his mind that we see this as a fight for the union”.
He warned that the DUP is “not going to accept some tawdry compromise on something that doesn’t deliver.”
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Speaking ahead of the bill’s introduction, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said: “I urge the Northern Ireland Parties to use this extended time to come together and deliver for the interests of all people in Northern Ireland, particularly in this time of rising costs.
“At present, MLAs are not in a position to fulfill the full range of their duties, so it is right that we take steps to reduce their salaries, especially in the current economic climate and in view of the £660 million black hole in the public finances created by poor decisions made by outgoing Ministers.
“Furthermore, Northern Ireland’s people are being denied full democratic representation. The government’s priority is to see politicians elected to return to fulfill their roles in a strong, devolved and locally accountable government, as laid out by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”
The UK has been locked in talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol – which was agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland post-Brexit – since October 2021.
It allows Northern Ireland to remain within the EU’s single market for goods, but it has faced criticism because a border was effectively created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland down the Irish Sea.
The border has led to delays, supermarket shortages and increased costs for businesses in Northern Ireland.