UK Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said Thursday he would not rush into a decision on fresh elections in Northern Ireland, even if a deadline for power-sharing in Belfast is missed.
"If no Executive is formed today, I'll be under a legal duty to hold elections to the Assembly in the next 12 weeks," he tweeted, as the clock ticked to the midnight cut-off.
But 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 I make any decisions."
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.
- DUP 'hiding' -
"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.
Northern Ireland was created just over a century ago as a pro-UK, Protestant-majority entity under British rule, as Ireland cast off colonial governance from London and later became a republic.
If power-sharing is not restored, Heaton-Harris is obliged by law from Friday 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.
- 'Shameful' -
A breakthrough could see parties return to Stormont but is not guaranteed, leaving Northern Ireland without a government on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Heaton-Harris met Irish deputy prime minister Micheal Martin in Dublin on Thursday and reaffirmed his cautious approach, given more optimism about the EU talks.
Martin told reporters the DUP had an "overriding obligation... to fulfil the mandate of the people of Northern Ireland" and go back to Stormont.
In London, Sinn Fein's all-Ireland leader Mary Lou McDonald, who is opposition leader in Dublin, said it would be "shameful" if there was still a boycott by the time of the anniversary.
She reaffirmed her party's belief that a referendum on reunifying the island of Ireland is likely this decade, urging both London and Dublin to start preparations.
And addressing what she said was the DUP's "lukewarm" ambivalence about the Good Friday Agreement, McDonald added: "They can't have yesterday.
"The success in Ireland has been about tomorrow."