Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has failed to set a date for a snap Assembly election, despite the deadline for the formation of a devolved government passing.
However, Mr Heaton-Harris has insisted that he will still call the Stormont election but would meet with political parties first.
His announcement on Friday was heavily criticised by political leaders in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill accused him of a “bizarre U-turn” while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said “the chaos continues”.
It had been widely anticipated that Mr Heaton-Harris would announce the date for an election on Friday, after the deadline to restore Stormont passed at midnight.
Stormont ministers, who have been operating in shadow form since the Assembly collapsed earlier this year, also ceased to hold office at midnight.
Mr Heaton-Harris instead said he would give more information next week and would meet with the Stormont parties.
Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, apologised to election workers who are on standby to assist on the basis polling day will be December 15.
There are almost 6,000 people on standby to work for the election, and more than 600 polling stations
Ms McVea met Mr Heaton-Harris in Belfast on Friday.
“It’s our job to be available to run an election as directed by government so I updated the Secretary of State in relation to the contingency planning for December 15,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.
“For the nearly 6,000 people who are currently responding to our request (that) if an election was called on December 15 would you be available to work, I would apologise for the uncertainty and ask them to stick with us and continue to reply on the basis of December 15.
“There are 607 polling places across Northern Ireland, most of them are schools, church halls, community centres.
“Again to all those people, I’m sorry that uncertainty remains, thank you so much for working with us because we have confirmed our 607 places.
“I know that lots of people have actually moved things, all kinds of events. Last night I was hearing about a Christmas cinema event that a school had moved.”
The DUP’s boycott of the Stormont institution is part of a campaign of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the party says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.
Speaking in Belfast on Friday, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I am deeply disappointed we are where are are now.
“This is a really serious situation.
“As of a minute past midnight last night, there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive.
“I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services do continue and to protect the public finances.
“But there is a limit to what the Secretary of State can do in these circumstances.”
With no ministerial executive in place, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election.
Responsibility for running devolved departments will now pass to senior civil servants, although their powers are limited.
I am extremely disappointed that the Executive has not reformed.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully-functioning devolved government.
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) October 28, 2022
Mr Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the parties and will meet with them again next week.
“I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election,” he added.
“So you’ll hear more from me on that particular point next week.
“Nearly all the parties who have been saying this won’t help the situation actually signed up to the rules that make this situation happen.
“Why call it now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”
He also denied his decision not to call an election immediately was a U-turn.
He said he understood that the “big impasse” for the unionist community was the ongoing issues with the protocol.
“But as I continually say, the atmosphere in those talks is completely changed in recent weeks and I am optimist and I really do believe that we can get somewhere on those too,” he added.
Mr Heaton-Harris said he will also be considering his options to act on MLA pay.
Ms O’Neill said: “Today, he is doing a bizarre U-turn, one of which he obviously communicated to the media in advance of speaking to the local parties, from my understanding at least.
“I think just think it is bizarre, it reflects the chaotic nature of the Tories, it is more dysfunction, it is spilling into our politics.
“But you see for the workers and families tonight and the businesses that are struggling, the people here that are left without an Assembly, an Executive, there is not even a caretaker minister in place and we have a situation tonight where people just don’t know what is going to happen next.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “The chaos continues and we do not yet know whether we are going to have an election in Northern Ireland or not.
“The Northern Ireland Office has been talking up for some time the prospect of an election but evidently no decision has yet been taken.
“And we’re ready to fight an election.
“I will be travelling around all the constituencies as we prepare to fight a campaign to ensure we renew the mandate we have been given, which is very clear, and that is until we get decisive action to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and remove the rubble and debris of the protocol, we are not in a position and there is not a consensus for the restoration of the devolved institutions.”
Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin has reiterated the Irish Government has a role to play in Northern Ireland in the absence of a devolved government at Stormont.
He said: “The Good Friday Agreement is there in terms of the framework and both governments will operate within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement.
“That does involve consultation between the Irish Government and the British government if there is any prolonged period of direct rule, or no devolution, so to speak.”
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said it is “deeply regrettable” that it has come to the point where the Northern Ireland Secretary is under a legal obligation to call an election.
He said it was due to the a “political choice by one party to block the formation of the Executive, and to prevent those MLAs elected in May from exercising their fundamental democratic role”.
“My position, and that of Irish Government, remains unchanged,” Mr Coveney said.
“I want to see an Executive formed in Northern Ireland and, separately, I want to see early substantive progress in the EU-UK talks.”