Stormont election delay bill debated by MPs

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

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image captionThe current round of talks to restore power sharing at Stormont has not led to a breakthrough

MPs have begun debating legislation that would allow the Northern Ireland Office to extend its legal power to delay a fresh assembly election.

It would push back the Northern Ireland secretary's obligation to call a poll until 21 October.

Karen Bradley told the Commons the bill would give the Stormont parties "more time and space" to reach a deal.

She said it was a "huge disappointment" that after 10 weeks of negotiations, no agreement had been reached.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, if approved, would push back the prospect of a Stormont election until 21 October, with the option of a further delay to 13 January 2020.

The provision, originally contained in an act that became law last November, was previously due to expire in March.

But the law gave the Northern Ireland secretary the ability to order an extension, which ends on 25 August.

The bill is to be brought through all stages of the House of Commons this week, with a second day of debate scheduled for Tuesday.

Shadow NI Secretary Tony Lloyd said Labour would support the bill - but added that they would not back a further extension after October.

He said MPs had been told it was meant to be an emergency measure, but that its repeated use was becoming a concern.

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image captionThere have been calls for Westminster to legislate for issues like same-sex marriage and abortion in NI, if Stormont does not return

A number of amendments have been tabled to the bill, but it will be up to the Commons deputy speakers to decide whether to select any for further stages of debate on Tuesday.

Labour MP Conor McGinn, who is originally from south Armagh, has put forward an amendment calling on Parliament to make same-sex marriage legal in Northern Ireland, if an executive has not been restored by 21 October.

His party's frontbench has also tabled several amendments relating to same-sex marriage and abortion law in Northern Ireland, and compensation for victims of historical institutional abuse.

It is not clear if any of them will be selected.

'Deeply unhelpful'

Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds described Labour's decision to table amendments to the bill as "deeply unhelpful" to the talks process at Stormont.

He said it was wrong for MPs at Westminster to try to take control of issues including same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland.

He said the narrow point of the legislation was to keep a "standstill position" in Northern Ireland for another few months.

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has also tabled an amendment that seeks to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

The bill also provides legal clarity for decisions taken by Stormont civil servants, in the absence of power-sharing.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved power-sharing government for more than two and a half years, after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin split in a bitter row.

Stormont's political parties have been engaged in a talks process since May 2019, although they are not nearing an agreement.

There have already been several failed talks processes.

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