1. New Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill announced

A Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill is expected to complete all its stages in both Houses of Parliament on 24 January 2024.[1] The scheduling of the bill was announced on 23 January 2024 and at the time of writing this briefing, the text of the bill has not been published.

The period for forming a new executive that is specified under current legislation ended at the end of 18 January 2024.[2] As this deadline was reached without an executive being formed, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland is under a duty “as soon as practicable” to propose a date for an Assembly election.[3] If the government wishes to avoid calling an election, legislation is necessary to remove this requirement for the time being by extending the deadline for forming a new executive.

Chris Heaton-Harris, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said on 23 January 2024 that the bill will have a single clause, to extend the period for executive formation until 8 February 2024.[4] He said he believed “that this bill, with the constrained timescales” would be “sufficient” to restore devolution, as “significant progress” had already been made.

Mr Heaton-Harris had announced his intention on 19 January 2024 to introduce a bill to extend the deadline.[5] He said the legislation would “take a pragmatic, appropriate and limited approach to addressing the executive formation period and support Northern Ireland departments to manage the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances”.

2. Background

Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning executive or assembly since February 2022, following the collapse of power sharing over the DUP’s objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol/Windsor Framework.[6] Northern Ireland Assembly elections took place in May 2022. However, the statutory period for forming a new executive after the May election ended with no executive being formed.

In response to this situation, the UK Parliament has legislated several times to extend the time allowed for forming a new executive before another assembly election must be held. The latest period ended on 18 January 2024.

The UK Parliament has also passed legislation to allow senior Northern Ireland civil servants to exercise departmental functions in the public interest, and to put on a statutory footing budget allocations for Northern Ireland departments and other bodies for the financial year ending 31 March 2024. There have been concerns about the sustainability of Northern Ireland’s public finances, highlighted by a shortfall of £297mn to be repaid to the Treasury to cover spending in the 2022/23 financial year. Legislation passed by Parliament gives the secretary of state powers to direct Northern Ireland departments to provide advice or consult on options to raise revenue or deliver sustainable public finances in the absence of an executive. In September 2023, the secretary of state directed Northern Ireland civil service departments to launch the public consultations on budget sustainability and revenue raising measures.[7]

A return to power sharing has yet to take place because of ongoing political disagreements about the protocol and the Windsor Framework that was agreed between the UK government and the EU. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he could not give a political commitment to restore devolved institutions until the party’s concerns about certain proposals in the Windsor Framework were addressed.[8]

Recent efforts aimed at restoring Stormont have not to date resulted in the formation of a new executive. The UK government has been in talks with the DUP for months about the party’s concerns over the Windsor Framework (an agreement with the EU that amended parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol). Sir Jeffrey has said that legislation and other measures are needed to safeguard Northern Ireland’s ability to trade with the rest of the UK.[9] Discussions also took place in late 2023 between the UK government and Northern Ireland parties about additional financial support for Northern Ireland and its public services.

In December 2023, Chris Heaton-Harris proposed a financial package for Northern Ireland worth £3bn to support a restored Northern Ireland executive.[10] This included £584mn to address public sector pay, more than £1bn to “stabilise” Northern Ireland’s public services and an “uplift” to the Barnett formula by 24% from 2024–25.

However, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson ruled out the prospect of forming an executive before Christmas.[11] Mr Heaton-Harris described this as “disappointing” but said the financial package would remain available for any incoming executive to take up. He said the government was ready to introduce a package of measures worked on with the DUP to address the party’s concerns about the Windsor Framework, should the DUP decide to proceed. He explained that as far as the UK government was concerned, both the financial talks and the talks with the DUP about the Windsor Framework had concluded.[12] Sir Jeffrey said that “restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market” was a key objective for the DUP in 2024, but he said the party would be “led by securing the necessary conditions for long-term stability rather than a quick and rushed fix that would quickly fall apart”.[13]

On 15 January 2024, Mr Heaton-Harris said “further progress” had been made in talks the previous week.[14] He said he had met representatives of the main Northern Ireland political parties that day to urge them all to take the next step and form an executive.

Thousands of public sector workers from 16 different unions in Northern Ireland took part in strike action over pay disputes on 18 January 2024.[15] Responding to the industrial action, Mr Heaton-Harris said:

While public sector pay is devolved, the UK government has offered a fair and generous package worth over £3bn which would address public sector pay and provides more than £1bn to stabilise public services. This will require ministers being back to work in Stormont so that decisions on governing can be taken in the round.

I am deeply disappointed that the significant funding offer from the UK government to address such issues has not been taken up. This package has been on the table since before Christmas and will remain there, available on day one for an incoming Northern Ireland executive.[16]

The Northern Ireland Assembly was summoned on 17 January 2024 to debate a motion tabled by members of Sinn Féin, Alliance and the SDLP “endors[ing] the demand for fair pay settlements for public sector workers; urg[ing] the DUP to respect the democratic outcome of the May 2022 Assembly election; and emphasis[ing] the pressing need to urgently reinstate the executive to tackle the unprecedented challenges confronting citizens and our public services, particularly the immediate matter of public sector pay”.[17] However, the Assembly failed (for the seventh time since the May 2022 election) to elect a speaker and business could therefore proceed no further.[18]

3. Read more

3.1 Briefings on legislation introduced by the UK government since the collapse of the Northern Ireland executive

3.2 Background

Cover image by maddock1238 on Pixabay.


  1. Leader of the House of Commons, ‘Official X account’, 23 January 2024; and House of Lords Government Whips Office, ‘Forthcoming business’, 23 January 2024. Return to text
  2. Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, s 1. Return to text
  3. This is the combined effect of section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 and section 32(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Return to text
  4. Chris Heaton-Harris, ‘Personal X account’, 23 January 2024. Return to text
  5. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Secretary of state’s statement on the NI executive formation deadline’, 19 January 2024. Return to text
  6. Damien Edgar and Eimear Flanagan, ‘DUP: NI First Minister Paul Givan announces resignation’, BBC News, 3 February 2022. Return to text
  7. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Secretary of state writes to Northern Ireland civil service on sustainable public finances’, 20 September 2023. Return to text
  8. HC Hansard, 22 March 2023, col 355; and HC Hansard, 21 June 2023, col 781. Return to text
  9. Belfast Live, ‘Jeffrey Donaldson says there’s “absolutely no dissent” as he hints at Stormont return’, 12 October 2023. Return to text
  10. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Secretary of state statement at Hillsborough Castle’, 19 December 2023. Return to text
  11. BBC News, ‘NI talks: DUP rules out pre-Christmas Stormont deal’, 18 December 2023. Return to text
  12. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Secretary of state statement at Hillsborough Castle’, 19 December 2023. Return to text
  13. Democratic Unionist Party, ‘New Year message from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’, 30 December 2023. Return to text
  14. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Secretary of state statement at Hillsborough Castle’, 15 January 2024. Return to text
  15. BBC News, ‘Strikes: Thousands attend rallies in major strike over pay’, 18 January 2024. Return to text
  16. Northern Ireland Office, ‘Statement from secretary of state on public sector pay’, 18 January 2024. Return to text
  17. Northern Ireland Assembly, ‘Northern Ireland Assembly to hold plenary sitting’, 16 January 2024. Return to text
  18. Northern Ireland Assembly, ‘Official report’, 17 January 2024. Return to text