The UK and Irish governments need to demonstrate that progress is being made towards agreeing on a new devolved government in Northern Ireland before the end of October to avoid fresh assembly elections, ministers said on Wednesday (28 September).
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, both former MEPs, made the statement following their first meeting since Heaton-Harris took his new post in Liz Truss’s new government earlier this month.
Speaking to reporters following their meeting in Dublin on Wednesday, Coveney said that the focus of the conversation had been on how to “rebuild a partnership” between London and Dublin.
“A partnership approach that really has been the foundation of the peace agreement that happened nearly 25 years ago,” he added.
However, unless there is some progress towards breaking the political log-jam in Belfast that has existed since the May assembly elections, which saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, Heaton-Harris stated that he would be legally bound to call a new assembly election if there was no progress by 28 October.
“Our joint top priority is doing everything we can to ensure an executive is re-established before an election has to be called,” the UK minister said.
Despite hinting at threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol during her successful Conservative party leadership campaign, and introducing legislation to allow UK ministers to unilaterally override the protocol, the early mood music from the Truss government has been far more constructive on both Northern Ireland and wider EU-UK relations than her predecessor Boris Johnson.
“The messages coming out of London are quite different from what we heard a few months ago,” said Coveney, adding that he believed it was “absolutely doable” for an agreement on the protocol to be reached soon with the European Commission.
Truss has set an April 2023 deadline for negotiating a settlement with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, with the date timed to coincide with a potential visit by US President Joe Biden – his first to the UK as President – to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.
The protocol introduced customs checks on products arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain in order to avoid a hard customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, effectively carving out Northern Ireland from the UK’s own internal market in the process.
However, domestic economic and energy concerns are set to dominate the new UK government’s agenda in the coming months.
The Truss government has found itself embroiled in an early economic crisis after plans announced last week by Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng to cut taxes across the board at an estimated cost of £45 billion prompted a severe market reaction and concerns about the state of the UK’s public finances.
The planned cuts, which were not accompanied by any changes to public spending, and follow proposals earlier this month to subsidise energy bills at an estimated £100 billion cost, have prompted a run on the pound while interest rates on 10-year UK government bonds have increased to 4.4%, comparable to the rates for Italy, up from 0.95% at the start of 2022.
On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund urged the UK to reconsider its plans to cut taxes for the wealthiest and to instead “provide support that is more targeted and reevaluate the tax measures, especially those that benefit high income earners”.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]