By David Young, PA
Another deadline for forming a devolved executive in Northern Ireland is set to fall by the wayside as the deadlock over post-Brexit trading arrangements continues.
If the Stormont parties do not agree to form an administration in Belfast on Thursday, the British government assumes a legal duty at midnight to call a snap Assembly election in the region.
An ongoing DUP block on the functioning of powersharing, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, means it is almost certain the day will pass without an executive being convened.
January 19th is the latest in series of deadlines the parties have been given to resurrect devolution following the last election in May.
As the institutions can only function with the cooperation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on powersharing returning.
The party has made 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 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 clear any agreement that may emerge must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.
If the latest deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris assumes a duty to call an election within 12 weeks.
However, he does not have to announce a date for a poll immediately.
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, the Northern Ireland Secretary could then ask the UK parliament to retrospectively extend the January 19th deadline for forming an executive – meaning the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a fresh election.
The Stormont impasse is sure to feature prominently when Mr Heaton-Harris attends a meeting with Irish Government ministers in Dublin on Thursday.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said she wanted all the parties back around the Executive table, as she called for a solution that is “pragmatic, that’s long lasting, to provide certainty and stability”.
“The DUP have to shoulder some responsibility for bringing us to the point that we’re in today,” she told BBC Newsnight.
“I believe in power-sharing. I believe in all the parties working together. I believe in all voices being heard. And I want to see a solution here and I want to get us back into the executive.”
Expressing some optimism about progress towards a deal on the protocol, she said: “I am encouraged by the conversation this week that’s been heard between both the EU and the British government.
“I’m encouraged that [UK foreign secretary] James Cleverly is in the United States because the United States are a big friend of the peace process.”