By Rebecca Black, PA
Northern Ireland Secretary Shailesh Vara said he is determined to avoid a fresh Stormont election in the autumn.
He stressed that he is not afraid to take tough decisions and that the option of cutting MLAs’ pay is “on the table”.
The Stormont institutions have been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the devolved executive, calling for the British government to act on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s party has remained firm, resisting a number of attempts to resuscitate the powersharing institutions.
The Assembly will sit next Tuesday to attempt for the third time since May’s election to elect a new speaker following a recall motion by the SDLP.
However the DUP has made clear it will continue to block the election of a speaker.
Without a speaker, no further Assembly business can be done, including the nomination of new first and deputy first ministers.
If a new powersharing administration is not in place within six months of May’s election, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a fresh poll within the following three months.
Mr Vara said there is going to have to be “some serious thinking” before the end of October.
“I am determined to do everything I possibly can to make sure that an election is not called,” he told media during a visit to Atlas Women’s Centre in Lisburn, Co Antrim.
“I want to work with all the political parties to make sure that we can move forward, but if tough decisions have to be taken then you will find that this Secretary of State is not afraid to take them.”
Asked would he cut MLAs’ pay, he said that is “on the table”.
“I’m not ruling anything out but I’m very much hoping that very soon we can get heads together and that that Executive will be running, but nothing is being ruled out.”
Mr Vara added: “My immediate priority is to get everyone to think about the 1.9 million people in Northern Ireland who are desperately wanting to have decisions made.
“Right now there is £400 million that is just sitting waiting to be spent, and that money can be spent by the Northern Ireland Executive but it isn’t sitting, and that money can help people when they desperately need it.
“We are in extraordinarily difficult circumstances right now, we have the post-pandemic period, we have the knock-on effect of the Ukraine war, there are supply chains that are having difficulties, there are rising prices in terms of cost of living … these are real issues that are affecting people on a daily basis.
“I want to see all the politicians working together to make sure that those real issues that are affecting the citizens of Northern Ireland are dealt with because that’s important.”
On Wednesday evening the British government’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would effectively over-ride parts of the post-Brexit settlement, moved closer to becoming law.
Mr Donaldson said, despite the progress of the legislation, his party was still not prepared to reengage with the Stormont institutions.
“We are clear that we need to see further progress made,” he told BBC NI. “It is good that the legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, has now completed all stages in the House of Commons.
“But, of course, we want to know if a new prime minister remains committed to taking this legislation forward and we will be engaging with both the leadership contenders and their teams over the next few weeks.
“But we haven’t yet got the solution that we need on the protocol. We’ve got a pathway now that can take us to that solution.”
Commenting on his party’s successful recall petition, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said: “At a time when working households are facing a real emergency, there is no justification for those continuing to hold our democratic institutions to ransom for their own cheap political games.
“That’s why the SDLP is recalling politicians from the summer recess to address the real challenges facing our communities. The Protocol Bill has, unfortunately, passed its Commons stages and it is time for Jeffrey Donaldson to make his mind up.
“He cannot keep speaking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive.”
Mr Vara said the UK government is keen to have a negotiated settlement with the European Union over the protocol.
But he said that after 18 months of negotiations, 300 hours of officials talking, 26 separate meetings between Lord Frost with his EU counterparts, and 17 separate papers, it is “difficult” when they are told “sorry the deal has been signed up already and that’s it”.
“What we really need is a can-do attitude so that when people are sitting at that table, rather than drawing lines and saying I’m not moving beyond this, what I’d like to see is for them to say, ‘there are nearly 1.9 million people who are affected by this, we need to do the best we can for them so we that can move this to the side and we can deal with so many other issues that need to be addressed’,” he said.
Mr Vara has been in the role for just a number of weeks following the resignation of Brandon Lewis in a Cabinet revolt against British prime minister Boris Johnson.
Asked about the rival Conservative Party leadership contenders Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, Mr Vara said: “They have made it absolutely clear to me that Northern Ireland is uppermost there and they want to make sure that they get the Executive up and running.”