A snap election could be called in Northern Ireland in an attempt to break the stalemate that has kept the doors of its Stormont Assembly closed since the DUP boycotted power-sharing last February.
As the clocked ticked down to a midnight deadline, UK Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris tweeted that he would be ‘under a legal duty to hold elections to the Assembly in the next 12 weeks’.
But the minister signalled that he would not be rushed into announcing a date for the poll.
He added: ‘I’ll use the next few weeks to carefully assess all options about what happens next and continue to talk to all interested parties before making any decisions.’
Heaton-Harris was in Dublin for a conference with Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government at the parliament in Stormont for almost a year because of a walk-out by the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The DUP collapsed the power-sharing executive with pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein in February 2022 because of its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol, signed between London and Brussels as part of the UK’s Brexit divorce from the European Union, governs trade in the British province, and keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union.
The DUP wants the deal overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.
It had been due to share power with Sinn Fein, who became the biggest party in the assembly after elections last May.
“The DUP are hiding behind the protocol,” Sinn Fein’s first minister-elect Michelle O’Neill told journalists in London.
“I suspect it’s a lot more about the election result in May. I suspect it’s because they don’t want to serve alongside a republican first minister,” she said. In the May 2022 elections Irish republicans won a majority vote in Northern Ireland for the first time.
If power-sharing is not restored, Heaton-Harris is obliged by law to announce a date for a new election within the next six weeks to allow a further six weeks of campaigning.
Under current rules, this would mean an election would have to be held no later than April 13, three days after the 25th anniversary of the 1998 agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
It is widely expected that the UK government will put forward new legislation to extend the cut-off point for the Belfast assembly to reform, pushing elections further into the future.
The delay is aimed at taking pressure off the UK and the EU while they negotiate to resolve differences over the protocol, which governs trade between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales.
It provides for checks on goods heading to Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK.
This is because the province has an open land border with EU member Ireland – a key plank of the peace accord that ended three decades of violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.