Belfast Telegraph

Electoral Commission concern over deferred Northern Ireland Assembly election - 'Serious step in a democracy'

'Parliament must ensure that the rights of voters in Northern Ireland are properly considered'

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley (Niall Carson/PA)
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley (Niall Carson/PA)
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The Electoral Commission has expressed its concern at the Government's attempt to further postpone an Assembly election in Northern Ireland describing is as a "serious step" in a democracy.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has proposed postponing the legal obligation to call an election until October 21 at the earliest with an option for a "single extension" to January 13, 2020.

There has been an onus to call an election since the collapse of power sharing in 2017. Mrs Bradley had already extended what was a March deadline to the end of August.

The legislation is to be debated on Monday with the Government attempting to fast-tracked it through parliament - which has caused anger among some MPs as it limits scrutiny and the ability to amend the bill. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee criticised the continued use of the mechanism just last week.

The Electoral Commission - which is responsible for overseeing elections - in an unusual move, described the potential postponement of an Assembly election as a serious step in a democracy.

A spokesman said: "We are very concerned about the Government’s proposed postponement of the requirement to call a Northern Ireland Assembly election. In a democracy, it is a serious step to continually defer elections.

"Parliament must ensure that the rights of voters in Northern Ireland are properly considered.”

Mrs Bradley said the move was a "sensible contingency plan" to ensure good governance continued and if the parties could not reach agreement in the ongoing talks.

"The restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks is my number one priority," she said.

"I continue to believe a deal is achievable in the weeks ahead and I will do everything I can to make that happen. At the same time it is my responsibility to plan for all scenarios and to ensure there are effective contingency measures in place.

"This Bill is necessary to ensure good governance and the continuation of public services in the event that the parties cannot come to an agreement before 25 August. We should all encourage the parties to ensure it is not needed by restoring the Executive in the coming weeks."

There was little sign of progress in the talks on Wednesday with both the DUP and Sinn Fein at loggerheads with the republican party saying the process had entered a "go-slow" period with the Twelfth around the corner.

However, the DUP hit back saying Sinn Fein were making "making excuses" and "lacked engagement" in the talks.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called on the British and Irish governments to put the deal on the table saying his party, the UUP and Alliance had made "substantial progress".

“People want a deal that restores inclusive power-sharing government here. But two and a half years after the collapse of the institutions, the public’s patience is wearing thin and they’ll know a sham process if that’s what this becomes," he said.

Alliance said there was a danger momentum would be lost in the process while the UUP called for the Secretary of State to take much-needed decisions.

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