By David Young and Dominic McGrath, PA
The UK government has made clear the restoration of powersharing in Northern Ireland is an “absolute priority”.
The powersharing vacuum at Stormont was the first item on the agenda at a British Cabinet meeting chaired by prime minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who briefed Cabinet colleagues on the situation, is due to outline the UK government’s approach to the impasse in the House of Commons on Wednesday amid mounting speculation he is set to push back an election deadline in the North to give more time for a deal on post-Brexit trade to be struck.
A failure to form a Stormont ministerial executive following May’s election has placed a legal responsibility on the UK government to hold a poll by January 19th.
Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled out a December election and asking voters to head to the polls in January would present significant logistical challenges, as it would involve a campaign that runs through the festive period.
A Downing Street read-out of Cabinet said Mr Sunak opened the meeting with a discussion on Northern Ireland.
“The Northern Ireland Secretary said he had carried out extensive engagement with Executive party leaders, civic society and business leaders, as well as people in Northern Ireland in recent days,” Downing Street said.
“He noted that he has carefully considered an informed approach in line with those discussions.
“Cabinet agreed that the UK Government’s absolute priority for the people of Northern Ireland was the restoration of a stable, effective and accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland as well as protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement which had been the bedrock of progress.
“The Northern Ireland Secretary resolved to update the House of Commons on the best means to achieve that tomorrow in the House.”
A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an executive being formed in Belfast.
The North’s largest unionist party has made clear it will not countenance a return to powersharing until the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are scrapped.
Negotiations between London and Brussels aimed at securing changes to the protocol are continuing with both sides talking up the prospect of a deal.
Extending the deadline for holding a poll would increase the likelihood of the negotiations producing something substantive ahead of any election date.
Local elections are already scheduled to take place on May 4th in Northern Ireland, so that could offer a potential date to hold an Assembly election as well.
However, that would mean Stormont would still be in limbo in April, when the 25th anniversary of the historic Good Friday peace agreement will be marked.
As such, the UK government could be tempted to hold a poll earlier in the year, in the hope of having a functioning powersharing administration in place when the landmark commemoration takes place.
Mr Heaton-Harris is already set to table legislation at Westminster in the coming weeks that would pass Stormont’s annual budget in the absence of devolved ministers.
Any move to extend the election deadline could potentially be bolted onto the budget legislation.
Existing legislation gave the Stormont parties almost six months to form an executive following the last election in May, which saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party for the first time.
The deadline to establish a new executive lapsed on October 28th, at which point the UK government assumed a legal responsibility to hold a fresh poll within 12 weeks.
Despite repeatedly vowing to set an election date the minute the deadline expired, Mr Heaton-Harris backtracked on his pledge, prompting Stormont parties to accuse him of a U-turn.