DUBLIN – Northern Ireland will gain another two weeks to revive its cross-community government under a U.K. bill to be published Wednesday.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced the surprise move as the Democratic Unionist Party continues to battle its internal divisions over whether to accept the U.K. package on offer and end its boycott on power-sharing at Stormont.
Heaton-Harris had been expected to signal a longer extension, closer in scope to his previous 2023 move to extend the deadline for Stormont’s resurrection by nearly a year.
That deadline expired January 18, and Heaton-Harris now proposes to kick D-Day for the DUP’s decision to no later than February 8, barely two weeks away.
The unexpectedly tight timeframe appears designed to pressure DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to make his long-delayed move and finally face down hard-liners in Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, a legally essential participant for any Stormont government to function.
Heaton-Harris had expected Donaldson to move last month when the U.K. offered him and other local party leaders a conditional £3.3 billion funding boost for a revived Stormont. It would include £584 million to pay overdue rises for public sector workers, 170,000 of whom staged an unprecedented Northern Ireland-wide strike last week.
Heaton-Harris said the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill being introduced and due to pass all Commons stages Wednesday would have only one clause – “to extend the period of time Stormont can legitimately come back until the 8th February.”
“I am committed to restoring devolution and significant progress has been made towards that objective,” he said. “I believe that this bill, with the constrained timescales, will be sufficient.”
Donaldson, an exceptionally cautious politician determined to avoid a damaging split in party ranks if possible, gathered his party’s 12 senior officers Friday to discuss the U.K. package on offer but afterward announced, against expectations, that no vote had been taken.
Donaldson wants unanimity among the dozen officers, an unlikely goal. A minority of those officers already have vocally rejected the U.K. deal on offer principally because it fails to remove the post-Brexit regime of checks and restrictions on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports.
Since October that EU-required scrutiny of arriving goods has been reduced, but not removed, by the U.K.-EU Windsor Framework trade agreement, a deal struck specifically to persuade the DUP to end its sabotage of Northern Ireland power-sharing.