UK gives Northern Ireland more time to form a new government

February 9, 2023 GMT

LONDON (AP) — The U.K. is giving Northern Ireland more time to form a new power-sharing government, eliminating the threat of elections that could derail efforts to renegotiate a post-Brexit trade deal for the region.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris on Thursday introduced legislation extending the deadline for forming a new government by up to a year. Without the move, elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would have been required by mid-April after the previous deadline passed on Jan. 19.

Northern Ireland has been without a government for more than a year after politicians who want the region to remain part of the U.K. resigned over their opposition to the existing trade deal with the European Union, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol was an effort to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland by preserving the free flow of trade between the region and the Republic of Ireland, which share the only land border between the United Kingdom and the EU.

The protocol requires border checks on some goods shipped from other parts of the U.K. to Northern Ireland to ensure that trade flows freely between the region and the Republic of Ireland to the south. The Democratic Unionist Party opposes the deal because it says the protocol treats Northern Ireland differently than the rest of U.K., undermining the region’s ties to Britain.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris met Wednesday with EU Vice President Marcos Sefcovic amid efforts to renegotiate the protocol.

“After considering my options, and engaging widely in Northern Ireland, I know that an election in the coming weeks will not be helpful or welcome,” Heaton-Harris said. “So I am introducing a bill to create more time for the parties to work together and return to government.”

A new executive could be formed at any time over the next year if Northern Ireland’s politicians agree.