Amid signs of real Tory Brexit regret – with the terms “Bregret” and “Regrexit” gaining currency – talks on fixing the row over Northern Ireland’s special trade status suddenly loom ever larger.
ut you are already forgiven if you have missed the quiet sound of another Northern Ireland power-sharing election deadline slipping quietly by yesterday.
On April 10, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we will be marking the considerable achievement of the end of systematic murder and mayhem.
However, the systematic failure to make cross-community power-sharing work remains a huge blot.
Yesterday, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed in Dublin that he would not immediately call a Stormont election when the latest power-sharing deadline passed at midnight today.
The arch-conservative Brexiteer had long ago said if no power-sharing Belfast government was formed yesterday, he would have no option but to call an election.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who landed in Belfast last autumn with major threats of an early election, again invoked a version of the St Augustine clause, saying: “North elections – but not yet Lord.” The better end of what he had to say was he will continue to work on finding an EU-UK fix on the application of Northern Ireland’s special post-Brexit trade status.
“I’ll use the next few weeks to carefully assess all options about what happens next and continue to talk to all interested parties before I make any decisions,” Mr Heaton-Harris said to no great surprise.
An ongoing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) block on power-sharing, in protest at Brexit’s so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, continues to block the restoration of power-sharing.
But DUP opponents and critics insist this is also an alibi to block the ceding of the First Minister job in the North to Sinn Féin following the results of last May’s Assembly elections.
Since power-sharing in the North can only function with the co-operation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on power-sharing returning. The DUP continues to insist it will only go back into government if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.
Many unionists oppose the protocol, which requires checks on goods coming into the North from Britain, insisting this has weakened the region’s place within the UK. Others argue it affords unique access to British and EU markets for Northern Ireland exporters.
Both the EU and UK continue negotiations aimed at significantly reducing the red tape on Irish Sea trade. In recent weeks, both sides have been talking up the potential of an agreed solution.
The DUP has made it clear any agreement that may emerge must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.
As the latest deadline has passed, London’s Northern Ireland minister Mr Heaton-Harris has a duty to call an election within 12 weeks. But he does not have to announce a polling date immediately.
The voting day is usually about six weeks after an election is announced. So, Mr Heaton-Harris has at least until mid-March to call a poll if it is to be held before the 12-week period expires in mid-April.
This allows breathing space for more Brussels-London talks to fix the debacle over the North’s trade status.
Mr Heaton-Harris has wide-ranging powers to extend the deadline for Belfast Assembly elections and there is ample precedent for this. If a Brexit fix emerges, pressure will be heaped on the DUP and its leader Jeffrey Donaldson to re-engage with power-sharing.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, the new First Minister designate, has unsurprisingly said she wants all the parties back around the Executive table.
“The DUP have to shoulder some responsibility for bringing us to the point that we’re in today,” she said.