The late extension of the deadline for Stormont’s recovery suggests a foreign secretary is playing for time.
Chris Heaton-Harris could have introduced emergency legislation in Westminster to roll back his legal obligation to call an election well before 28 October.
But his optimistic battle with the DUP overshot the deadline and made Stormont’s struggle worse than before, forcing sitting ministers out of office.
After reneging on his promise to call new elections immediately, the Northern Ireland minister is now trying to salvage credibility from the chaos he has caused.
Plans to cut MLA salaries are likely to be popular with the public, with Mr. Heaton-Harris who says people are “frustrated” that MLAs are still being paid their full annual salary of £51,500.
But the move will do nothing to revitalize Stormont. The last time MLA salaries were clamped in 2018 amid a breakdown in power-sharing, institutions took more than a year to recover.
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots said pay cuts would have “no impact” on his party’s position to block Stormont pending changes to the Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland.
The Foreign Secretary is believed to have been able to cut MLA salaries by 27%, but his statement to MPs did not include details – and there was no clarity on when the measure would be introduced.
This leaves open the prospect that this threat will be dragged away. It took almost two years for MLA salaries to be cut after Stormont collapsed in the wake of the RHI scandal in 2017.
Mr Heaton-Harris’ plan to extend the time for an executive to be put together pushes back the 12-week timeframe by which he must call an election.
The deadline would instead start on December 8 – meaning an election must be held no later than March 2 – or six weeks later on January 19, meaning an election must be held no later than April 13.
But at that point, Northern Ireland would be just weeks away from May’s local elections, after which calls for another general election to be postponed would inevitably grow louder.
After the embarrassment of the foreign minister, it can no longer be expected that future deadlines will be set in stone.
Mr Heaton-Harris insisted a few weeks ago that talks between the UK and the European Union to resolve the deadlock on the Protocol would continue “no matter what” during a parliamentary term.
But now the Northern Ireland minister says the extension of the deadline is intended to create “the necessary time and space” for negotiations between London and Brussels.
For someone who once insisted that ‘elections always help’, Mr Heaton-Harris is doing his best to keep his options open.
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Source: Bel Fast Live