The Northern Ireland Secretary has provided “no clarity” as to how he will deal with the ongoing crisis at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill has said.
The Sinn Féin vice president met Chris Heaton-Harris on Tuesday as part of a series of talks involving the minister and Stormont leaders amid continuing uncertainty over whether he intends to call an election in the region.
Mr Heaton-Harris failed to set a date for a new poll last Friday, despite repeatedly indicating that he would do so the minute a legislative deadline for calling the poll passed.
Speaking after their meeting, Ms O’Neill said he provided “no clarity” about the events on Friday or his “bizarre U-turn” in not immediately setting a date for an election.
“The Secretary of State told us that he had a legal obligation, that he would call that election at one minute past midnight (on Friday),” she said.
“Then what we saw unfold last Friday was a bizarre U-turn, the failure to continue in that vein.
“We’ve met with him again this morning. We’ve asked him a number of questions, but I have to say (he) provided no clarity, he provided no further information as to the U-turn.
“We’re left with no information in terms of what happens next, or at least what he intends to do next.
“It’s very clear he has a legal obligation in which to call an election if an Executive is not formed.
“But he did not colour in the lines today. He certainly did not provide any clarity around what he intends to do next, apart from to say that he’s here to meet with people.”
The 24-week deadline for forming a functioning power-sharing executive in Belfast following May’s election ran out at midnight on Friday.
Once the deadline passed, the UK Government assumed a legal responsibility to call a fresh election within 12 weeks.
Left in limbo
But Ms O’Neill said she is “none the wiser” as to whether Mr Heaton-Harris intends to call a poll.
“I think that the public, again, are left in limbo. I think he’s (Chris Heaton-Harris) doubled-down in that approach again today. I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” she added.
“I am none the wiser today in terms of his next step; he didn’t make that very clear.
“He didn’t say what his next move was. But you can’t escape the reality that there’s a legal obligation on him to call the election.
“Instead, he’s created a political vacuum.”
She went on: “It appears to be pandering to the DUP, and both the British Government and the DUP have left the public here in limbo and don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“I think the public deserves good government. They voted for it back in May.
“The DUP are the only one party that are continuing to block the outcome of the May election, and that’s not lost on the wider public.
“But people are living through the hardest times and living through a cost-of-living crisis like they’ve never been through before.”
A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions – in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol – has prevented an administration being formed in the wake of May’s poll.
On Friday, Mr Heaton-Harris insisted he still intends to call an election but did not set a date, prompting Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, to apologise to election workers who are on stand-by to assist on the basis that polling day will be December 15th.
The minister said he will say more about an election this week after holding talks with the local parties in Belfast on Tuesday.
He also indicated he would potentially take action to cut MLAs’ pay.
The DUP has said it will not return to power-sharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed unilateral domestic legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.
The European Commission has said the latter approach would breach the terms of an international treaty and potentially prompt retaliatory action.