By Michelle Devane, Jonathan McCambridge, Rebecca Black and Cate McCurry, PA
Political leaders across the island of Ireland have criticised the UK government for failing to call an election in Northern Ireland.
Chris Heaton-Harris had promised he would announce a date for an Assembly election if efforts to restore devolution failed.
But after the deadline passed on Friday without powersharing resuming at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Secretary confirmed he would call an election, but he did not set a date.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill accused Mr Heaton-Harris of a “bizarre U-turn”, while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the “chaos continues”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was “regrettable” the DUP had failed to take its seats, adding that restoration of powersharing must remain the “priority” of the political parties in the region.
He reiterated that the Government will have a role to play in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement framework in the absence of powersharing at Stormont.
“That does involve consultation between the Irish government and the British Government if there is any prolonged period of direct rule, or no devolution, so to speak,” Mr Martin said.
“But, fundamentally, it is the restoration of the executive and the institutions that matter the most now, in the immediate sense, and I think we will all work within the framework of the agreement.”
He acknowledged that the law provides for an election to be called but warned that elections can lead to “further polarisation”.
“There is an obligation on everybody not to allow that to happen and to think of the overall objective of making sure we can get an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” Mr Martin added.
Ms O’Neill said that people in Northern Ireland are now “left in limbo”.
She also said she has not spoken to the Northern Ireland Secretary, despite requesting to do so.
Today’s indecision by the British SoS is a bizarre u-turn.
At a time when workers, families and businesses are struggling, we are in political limbo.
Responsibility for this lies with the DUP who didn’t like the result of May’s election.
People deserve better than this.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) October 28, 2022
“I’ve made it very clear that his position is bizarre,” Ms O’Neill said.
“And I want to speak to him to say that’s not good enough on behalf of the people here.”
She added: “I think there’s a lot of questions to be answered now. The Secretary of State has communicated his message to the media, but he says he’s going to speak to the political parties.
“I will speak with him, I’ve asked to speak to him. I think it’s important that the public understand what’s going to happen next and how they’re going to have a fully functional executive that they deserve, and how they’re going to have politicians working together to actually support them through these difficult times.”
The DUP leader said his party is “ready to fight” an election.
But Mr Donaldson urged the UK government to “focus on resolving the problem rather than dithering over an election”.
“It is now clear the Secretary of State’s boss, the Prime Minister, has not yet decided how to proceed,” he said.
“The Government should focus its time and energy on ensuring the protocol problem is dealt with and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market is restored.
— Jeffrey Donaldson MP (@J_Donaldson_MP) October 28, 2022
“Our message to the Government continues to be that they need to get the protocol replaced and then we will have the basis for establishing a devolved government that unionists and nationalists can support.
“The Government has undermined its own credibility in recent weeks, instead of focusing on the underlying problem.”
Asked by reporters how likely an election is now, Mr Donaldson said: “I really don’t know.”
The DUP leader added: “The Government should think very carefully about its next steps.
“What we need is a period of stability, not further polarisation within our community.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Heaton-Harris must drop the idea of an election and focus on restoring the institutions.
The Foyle MP said the only thing that promising an early election achieved was “prompting anger” from the public, who want politicians to focus on important issues, such as the cost of living, rather than knocking on doors.
“What we really need is renewed negotiations between the British Government and the EU to solve the small number of outstanding issues around the protocol, while protecting the huge economic benefits, so we can get the institutions up and running again,” Mr Eastwood said.
The SDLP leader added that the DUP needed to realise the “huge amount of damage” it has caused to public faith in the institutions over the past year.
“More and more people are losing faith in devolved government and rejecting the status quo and continuing this boycott risks irreparable harm to our institutions that they may not recover from,” he said.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll condemned Mr Heaton-Harris for “insulting” the electorate over his failure to set a date for an election.
“This latest debacle shows the contempt the Tories have for the people of the North,” Mr Carroll said.
“The Secretary of State is playing with the lives of an electorate who now face another period of limbo.
“We’re clear that people who are suffering through this cost-of-living crisis are entitled to have a say on the DUP’s obstructionism and denial of democracy.
“The Tories have indulged the DUP’s antics over the protocol for too long. Their attempts to bribe and cajole them back into government have failed.”
TUV leader Jim Allister called on Mr Heaton-Harris to forget the mind games and get on with removing EU sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
“As Secretary of State his first priority, especially as a ‘Conservative and Unionist’, should be to stabilise Northern Ireland by restoring constitutional certainty through recovering from the EU its ill-gotten sovereignty over Northern Ireland,” he said.