By Richard Wheeler and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has urged Stormont party leaders to form an executive “as soon as possible”.
In his opening remarks to the UK parliament in London, Mr Heaton-Harris, who was appointed to the role on Tuesday night, told lawmakers that he would be speaking to each of the party leaders in Northern Ireland about the current situation.
He told MPs: “I know the House shares my view that Northern Ireland needs a stable, fully functioning devolved government to deliver on the issues that matter to people most.”
— Northern Ireland Office (@NIOgov) September 6, 2022
The DUP withdrew from the Executive earlier this year in protest over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, a special arrangement that keeps the North in the EU’s single market for goods, avoiding a hard border with the Republic.
But the arrangement is deeply unpopular with unionists because it includes checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The British government is progressing a Bill to give ministers in London powers to override parts of the agreement.
Mr Heaton-Harris said he would prefer a negotiated settlement with the European Union, but the UK government remained committed to progressing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said: “The main barrier to the resumption of devolved powersharing government is of course the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“So will he undertake to push that legislation through as quickly as possible and use the Parliament Act to get it through if necessary?”
Mr Heaton-Harris replied in the Commons: “We are committed to resolving the problems in the protocol, ideally through a negotiation, but, if not, through legislation, so yes.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle sought assurances that the UK government’s position on getting Stormont up and running was unchanged, with Mr Heaton-Harris replying: “We’re very clear, the protocol negotiation is between the EU and the UK, but yes the position is completely unchanged.”
He later told Mr Kyle: “I am very keen we try and negotiate a solution with the European Union and sort out the issues of the protocol. However, we do have legislation ready, we’ve discussed it in this House and if we do not get a negotiated solution, we will legislate.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson told Mr Heaton-Harris: “I hope he will be successful in doing what is necessary to get Stormont restored, namely removing the poison of the protocol.”
Mr Heaton-Harris is expected in Northern Ireland on Thursday for meetings with political leaders.
I will meet with Chris Heaton-Harris tomorrow and will make it clear that his first priority must be getting an executive up and running. Workers, families and small businesses need our help now. There can be no more delays.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) September 7, 2022
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “I will meet with Chris Heaton-Harris tomorrow and will make it clear that his first priority must be getting an executive up and running.
“Workers, families and small businesses need our help now.
“There can be no more delays.”