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UK to delay Northern Ireland vote, hopes to get EU deal first
Northern Ireland

UK to delay Northern Ireland vote, hopes to get EU deal first

2 min. 07.11.2022
February vote likely to avoid anniversary of 1998 peace deal - people familiar say extension gives more time for EU agreement
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at the annual 2022 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at the annual 2022 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham
Photo credit: AFP

The UK will legislate to extend the deadline for holding an election in Northern Ireland, people familiar with the matter said, to allow time to strike a deal on the region’s Brexit status with the European Union.

The plan will be announced in Parliament on Wednesday, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The current expectation is that the vote will be held in late February, to try to ensure the Northern Ireland executive is up and running well before the April anniversary of the region’s 1998 peace deal.

The UK’s Northern Ireland office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Northern Ireland’s most recent political crisis was triggered in February, when the Democratic Unionist Party -- which then lost its long-held status as the biggest party in a May election -- refused to take party in a power-sharing government with nationalists Sinn Fein.

The DUP is angry about the deal struck between the UK and EU, which keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s single market after Brexit.

The political parties were unable to resolve the impasse ahead of a deadline last month, meaning that under the law, the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had to announce a new vote within 12 weeks. 

Political risk

But the timing is sensitive, not least because the UK has restarted negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that sets trading terms for the region. The British government hopes that resolving issues the DUP is angry about will persuade the party to rejoin the government.

An undated photo of cars driving through Northern Ireland.
An undated photo of cars driving through Northern Ireland.
Shutterstock

Without a deal with the EU, there is a risk that an election fails to change the political status quo. And according to one of the people familiar, the British government understands that US President Joe Biden is unhappy that the political instability may not be sorted by the anniversary of the Northern Ireland peace deal, also known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Spokespeople for the White House had no immediate comment. 

UK officials think a short delay in holding the election is helpful because it would allow them to negotiate with the EU without the backdrop of politically-charged rhetoric that comes with parties campaigning for votes. 

Still, there is no guarantee that more time for talks -- which restarted in October after an eight-month stalemate -- will produce an agreement, especially one that will satisfy the DUP. 

The decision to keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market was regarded by both sides as the only way to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. As a result, it is broadly supported by Northern Irish nationalists but despised by many unionists because it treats the region differently to the rest of the UK.

It presents an early headache for new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who held talks Monday with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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