The Northern Ireland Secretary has expressed hope that a breakthrough on EU/UK talks on Irish Sea trade can deliver a solution that facilitates the return of Stormont powersharing.
Chris Heaton-Harris was commenting as another deadline to form a ministerial executive was set to fall by the wayside.
By Thursday evening, it was clear the midnight deadline to convene an executive would pass without progress, meaning come Friday the Government would once again assume a legal responsibility to call a snap election in the region.
An ongoing DUP block on the functioning of powersharing, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, has ensured the Stormont institutions have remained in cold storage since the last Assembly election in May.
Mr Heaton-Harris does not have to announce a date for a poll immediately and he has made clear he will take a number of weeks to consider his options and to see what emerges from the ongoing talks between London and Brussels on the protocol.
On Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris and fellow UK ministers joined counterparts from Ireland’s government for a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.
Commenting on his next steps, he said: “I’m going to talk to all the parties concerned.
“You will be aware that there are also important talks going on in Brussels between the UK government and European Union.
“And if we can solve one problem, we might be able to solve another.
“So, I think it’s worth me taking the time to consider my options.”
Ireland’s deputy premier Micheal Martin has said there was an obligation on the DUP to drop its Stormont boycott irrespective of what emerges from EU/UK talks on the protocol.
The Tanaiste also attended Thursday’s intergovernmental meeting in Dublin.
“There’s an overriding obligation irrespective of those talks on the DUP, in my view, to fulfil the mandate of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“And I’m passionately of the view that when you have elections, what should naturally follow is the convening of an assembly, or a parliament and a government – that’s democracy in action and the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less and I’ve made these points to the DUP and to other political parties.
“I made those points three years ago when the Assembly was collapsed by another party (Sinn Fein) and we had about a three-year absence and it was something I could never accept as a democrat.”
Polling day is usually around six weeks after an election is announced, so Mr Heaton-Harris would have until mid-March to call a poll if it is to be held before the 12-week period expires in mid-April.
That would give Mr Heaton-Harris another six weeks to see what emerges from the UK-EU talks on the protocol.
If a deal emerges in the coming weeks, and the DUP agrees to re-enter powersharing on the back of it, Mr Heaton-Harris could then ask Parliament to retrospectively extend the January 19 deadline for forming an executive – meaning the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a fresh election.
January 19 was the latest in a series of deadlines the parties have been given to resurrect devolution following May’s election.
As the institutions can only function with the co-operation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on powersharing returning.
The party has made it clear it will only go back into government if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.
Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, insisting the protocol has weakened the region’s place within the United Kingdom.
The EU and UK continue to engage in negotiations aimed at significantly reducing the red tape on Irish Sea trade, with both sides recently talking up the potential of an agreed solution being reached.
The DUP has made it clear any agreement that may emerge must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.
On Thursday, DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly emphasised the need to resolve the protocol impasse.
“No Executive has been formed because the NI Protocol does not and will not have the support of unionists,” she said.
“It is a matter for the Secretary of State whether an election is called.
“Devolution in Northern Ireland can only function when it has support of all communities.
“There is a growing acceptance of the problems caused by the protocol and there is growing support for our position.
“The Secretary of State knows the key to unlocking progress is to deal with the protocol, to respect our constitutional position and restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.”
She added: “The issues cannot be dodged. Either the problems created by the Protocol are resolved or basis for the restoration will not exist. The protocol must be replaced with arrangements that unionists can support.”
Earlier, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said there was “finally a sense of movement” in the talks between London and Brussels.
Ms McDonald told Sky News there was “finally a sense that a reasonable, rational approach can be taken and a deal can be struck on the outstanding issues around the protocol, that those matters can be resolved, that we can then get back to work and delivering for people as the health crisis looms.
“In the grip of the cost-of-living crisis, it’s not too much for the people of the north of Ireland to expect that when they go out and they vote and return their democratic verdict that political leaders go back to work.”