The fact that Monday’s supposed deadline for a talks solution has been “bursted” will do nothing for the reputation of the Province’s politicians, according to a UUP MP.
Tom Elliott, who had hit out on Sunday at what he claimed was a highly disorganised talks process, said on Monday night that the secretary of state “was weak in letting the talks drift along”, and that he now “needs to take a grip of the situation”.
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP said: “It does nothing to enhance the public’s perception of politics, in that here we had a deadline – what appeared to be an absolute deadline – that has now been bursted through.”
Secretary of State James Brokenshire repeatedly told the House of Commons he was working to a three-week post-election timetable for the negotiations.
For example, on March 15, he said: “We need to see the Executive in place within the three-week timescale, because there could be implications for a range of different issues within Northern Ireland.”
Then in his statement to the media on Monday afternoon, he indicated that there was in fact still time to talk.
He said: “I believe that there remains an overwhelming desire among the political parties and the public here for strong and stable devolved government.
“I have spoken to the leaders of each of the main parties this afternoon and there is no appetite for any alternative.
“I will be making a statement in Parliament tomorrow [Tuesday] on next steps.
“We now have a short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues and for an Executive to be formed.
“Everyone owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to grasp that and provide the political leadership and the stability they want.”
The three-week deadline was laid out via a complicated combination of bits of law.
The Northern Ireland Act of 1998, Section 31(4), ordered that newly lected MLAs must meet within eight days of the election. This was counted in working days (that is, it did not include weekends).
The election was on March 2, so that meant MLAs had to assemble by March 13 at the latest – and they did so at 4pm that day.
The Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act 2016, Section 6(1), then orders that the Assembly must appoint a first and deputy first minister within 14 days of that first meeting. This was counted in calendar days (that is, it did include weekends).
Hence 4pm on Monday was the deadline.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Section 32(3)) states if there is still no first or deputy first minister, “the secretary of state shall propose a date for the poll for the election of the next Assembly”.
However, it does not specify when this must be.
As to what happens now, a source close to the talks process suggested further details will be forthcoming when Mr Brokenshire speaks to the Commons on Tuesday.
Although the Assembly remains intact at present – and its speaker and deputy speakers remain in post – no business can be conducted there.