Deadline day approaching

03 October 2022 - by Adam Newton

In football, transfer deadline day sees a rush from the clubs to try and get as many deals over the line as possible. With the aim of getting the strongest squad to remain in the top division or to get promoted. In the politics of Northern Ireland, this upcoming deadline has that feel to it.

Having just been appointed to the post, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, has some considerable decisions to take as deadline day looms.

With the introduction of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 earlier this year, Ministers remained in post without a sitting Executive for a period up to 24 weeks after an election.  This has allowed for decisions to continue to be taken.  Funding has also been allocated to those policy areas which have previously been agreed by the Executive. 

However, the legislation does not allow for any new policy developments or consultations to be launched, which has restricted the influence Ministers can exert to tackle the emerging issues surrounding the cost-of-living crisis.

In a recent letter to MLAs, the Speaker, Alex Maskey, confirmed that the deadline for filling the positions of First and deputy First Minister expires on 28th October.  He also confirmed that under the legislation, if these appointments are not made, the following will come into force:

  • 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

We have also seen the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance enact Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act (NI) 2001 to set out the cash and resources limits for Departments.  This was necessary  in the absence of an agreed budget to allow Departments to access finance before reaching their cash limit.  Currently, authorisation has been set at approximately 60% of each Departments’ provision for the 2021-22 financial year, with a review scheduled for October.

In spite of the strong statement of intent by Heaton-Harris, the letter from the Speaker, and follow-up comments from the Prime Minister on calling an election should no Executive be in place by 28 October, privately he will be reflecting on his options;

  • Will he call an election or postpone to give the parties more space to come to an agreement and allow the new Westminster government time to bed-in?
  • Will legislation be introduced or extended at Westminster to keep the Ministers in post?
  • Will he wait until the NI Protocol Bill passes through Westminster? 
  • Will he introduce a budget through Westminster, as we have seen previously?
  • Will the UK and EU come to an agreement which will satisfy the parties to reform the Assembly and Executive?

However, Northern Ireland may not be top of the Government’s agenda, as they scramble to take control of what appears to be a freefall in popularity at the polls following Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. Despite the u-turn on the 45% tax rate they still have their eye on another deadline - the date they have set for the Medium-Term Fiscal Plan on 23 November.

The focus on this side of the Irish sea however is on 28 October, and whether there is room for a slightly less definitive reading of what exactly it will bring by the Secretary of State.