UK delays Northern Ireland vote to restore power-sharing

LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland elections aimed at restoring the region’s power-sharing government have been delayed until January amid concerns about holding them during the holiday season, the U.K. government said Friday.

Efforts to end a stalemate over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland collapsed last week, triggering a legal requirement for the central government in London to call new elections for the regional assembly. Despite initial expectations that the vote would be held in late December, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris refused to confirm a date as he held talks with local leaders over the past week.

“I have listened to their sincere concerns about the impact and cost of an election at this time,” Heaton-Harris said in a statement. “I can now confirm that no Assembly election will take place in December, or ahead of the festive season.”

Heaton-Harris didn’t say when the election would be scheduled, though he noted that current legislation requires a vote to be held by Jan. 20.

Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning government since February because of a dispute over provisions of Britain’s divorce agreement with the European Union, which require customs checks on some goods shipped to the region from other parts of the United Kingdom. The special arrangements were needed to allow the free movement of goods across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — the only land crossing between the U.K. and the EU — and protect the peace process that ended three decades of violence.

Resolving the dispute has been one of the most difficult issues of Brexit because it divides Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties, which are required to share power under the 1998 peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement.

The Democratic Unionist Party has refused to participate in the power-sharing executive since February because it believes the post-Brexit trade rules treat Northern Ireland differently from other parts of the U.K., undermining the region’s traditional links with Great Britain.

Elections in May only deepened the divide because Sinn Fein, which favors closer ties with the Republic of Ireland, surpassed the DUP to become the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time. Sinn Fein says the DUP is frustrating democracy by blocking the formation of a new government.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.