UK to delay Northern Ireland vote, hopes for EU deal first

(Bloomberg) — The United Kingdom will legislate to extend the deadline for holding an election in Northern Ireland, people familiar with the matter said, to allow time to reach a deal on the region’s Brexit status with the European Union.

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The plan will be announced in Parliament on Wednesday, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The current expectation is that the vote will be held at the end of February to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive is up and running well before the April anniversary of the region’s 1998 peace deal.

The UK office in Northern Ireland did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Northern Ireland is facing new elections to break the Brexit deadlock

Northern Ireland’s most recent political crisis was sparked in February when the Democratic Unionist Party — which then lost its long-standing status as the largest party in a May election — refused to join a power-sharing government with the nationalists Sinn Féin.

The DUP is angry about the deal reached between the UK and the EU, which keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s single market after Brexit.

The political parties were unable to resolve the impasse before last month’s deadline, meaning by law UK Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had to announce a new vote within 12 weeks.

But the timing is sensitive, not least because the UK has restarted negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that sets trade terms for the region. The British government hopes that resolving issues the DUP is angry about will convince the party to return to government.

Political risk

Without an agreement with the EU, there is a risk that the elections will not change the political status quo. And according to one of the people in the know, the British government senses that US President Joe Biden is unhappy that political instability may not be settled by the anniversary of the Northern Ireland peace deal, also known as the Good Friday Agreement.

People familiar with Biden’s thinking said it would be an exaggeration to say the president is unhappy. But one person also said it’s hard to imagine Biden traveling for the anniversary next year if things aren’t resolved.

British officials believe a slight delay in holding the election is useful because it would allow them to negotiate with the EU without the backdrop of politically charged rhetoric that accompanies parties campaigning for votes.

But there is no guarantee that more time for talks — which resumed in October after an eight-month deadlock — will lead to a deal, especially one that will satisfy the DUP.

The decision to keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market was seen by both sides as the only way to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. As a result, it is widely supported by Northern Ireland nationalists, but despised by many unionists because it treats the region differently from the rest of the UK.

It presents an early headache for new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who held talks on Monday with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen.

–With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

(Updates with people familiar with Biden’s thinking in the ninth paragraph)

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