Alex Maskey, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, has notified MLAs that they must nominate a First Minister and Deputy First Minister by October 28.
Maskey, a Sinn Féin MLA, said if the office of the First and Deputy First Minister is not filled by October 28, institutions will be formally dissolved and another election will have to be called.
Northern Ireland went to the polls on May 5 in what turned out to be a historic win for Sinn Féin, which emerged as the largest party for the first time ever in the history of Northern Ireland, granting the party the right to nominate the First Minister.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now the second largest party in Northern Ireland, is refusing to go into power-sharing by not nominating a Deputy First Minister in protest of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol.
The contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which the British government says “aims to fix parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, restore stability, and protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement," was introduced in the UK in July and is now sitting in the House of Lords. It has been met with pushback from some politicians in both Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, Northern Ireland's new Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris met with Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
Afterward, Coveney said that the two are "absolutely committed" to facilitating the return of devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
Very constructive meeting this morning with new Secretary of State for NI @chhcalling. We are both absolutely committed to working together in partnership to facilitate the return of devolved Government in Northern Ireland by the end of October. 🇮🇪🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/3Bnh0MkWCF— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) September 28, 2022
Heaton-Harris said after the meeting that he would “have to call an election on October 28 if there is no Executive” and “probably would," according to the Belfast Telegraph.
"It is a very small period of time to get things moving and there are important discussions between London and Brussels, as well as between Simon and myself, but these discussions can move forward,” he added.
"I am really confident that they will move forward. The mood music that everybody talks about is seemingly very positive.
"We now have to make sure that music turns into something much more fundamental that allows all parties to reform the executive.
"There is an important anniversary of an important document happening next year and it would be nice to have some things to celebrate."
Later, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the head of the DUP, said in a statement: "The Secretary of State and the Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Minister should focus on replacing the Protocol with arrangements which unionists can support. This would recognise that we operate powersharing in Northern Ireland rather than majority rule. Not one unionist MLA or MP supports the Protocol."
Below is Alex Maskey's letter, issued on September 28, in full:
You will be aware that the deadline for filling the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister expires on 28 October 2022, one month from today.
Under the terms of the relevant legislation, if a First Minister and deputy First Minister are not appointed by that point:
Those Ministers who are currently in post cease to hold office;
The offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister; and the other ministerial offices can no longer legally be filled;
In line with Standing Order 45A(4)(b), the Opposition will be dissolved; and
The Secretary of State is required, as soon as practicable, to propose a date for an Assembly election which must take place within 12 weeks
The intention of the relevant legislation and Standing Orders is that the Opposition is also dissolved at the time that Ministers cease to hold office. I will be giving this issue further detailed consideration in the time ahead.
Of course, before the Assembly is able to fill the offices of a First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Assembly must elect a new Speaker and Deputy Speakers.
As I have repeatedly made clear since the May election, if parties indicate to me that a new Speaker can be elected, I will make arrangements for the Assembly to meet at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the deadline can be met.
In the interim, I have also written to Ministers who continue to hold office to emphasise their ongoing duty in relation to the scrutiny of their responsibilities. While there are limited accountability mechanisms in these circumstances, it is important that Ministers use the procedural mechanisms which continue when the Assembly is not sitting. In particular, I have written to Ministers to remind them of the importance of both answering Assembly Written Questions within the deadlines in Standing Orders and using written statements to inform Members of important issues.
Members will be aware that I had not planned on still being in office at this point. While I am conscious of my responsibility to ensure that the remaining functions of the Speaker can still be exercised, I would prefer for a new Speaker to be elected as soon as possible.
It is not for me to take a position on the political issues behind our current situation but no-one will be surprised that the Speaker would want to see the Assembly functioning fully. I would therefore urge that the remaining time available is used to facilitate the resumption of normal Assembly business and the formation of an Executive.