Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has been accused of sowing “chaos” after he failed to set a date for a snap election, despite the deadline for the formation of a devolved government passing.
Mr Heaton-Harris insisted that he would still call the winter Stormont election, but would meet with political parties first.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said the failure to confirm an election date was 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 – with the most likely date 15 December – after the deadline to restore Stormont passed at midnight.
However, Mr Heaton-Harris instead said he would give more information next week and would meet with the Stormont parties – saying he was “deeply disappointed” the parties could not agree to restore powersharing.
The DUP’s boycott of Stormont is part of a campaign of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol – with the unionist party refusing to return until decisive action is taken to remove barriers on Irish Sea trade.
But the party’s leader said his party was “ready to fight” a second election in a year, and condemned Mr Heaton-Harris for adding to uncertainty. “The chaos continues and we do not yet know whether we are going to have an election in Northern Ireland or not,” Sir Jeffrey said.
For Sinn Fein, Ms O’Neill said: “Today, [Mr Heaton-Harris] 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.
She added: “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.”
With no ministerial executive in place after a six-month impasse, the UK government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election. Responsibility for running devolved departments now passes to senior Whitehall civil servants – though their powers are limited.
Mr Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the parties and will meet with them again next week. He also denied his decision not to call an election immediately was a U-turn.
Speaking in Belfast on Friday, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I am deeply disappointed we are where are now. This is a really serious situation. Why call [an election] now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”
The government has vowed to ditch some protocol checks, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through unilateral legislation. But it has not been enough for the DUP.
Mr Heaton-Harris suggested talks with the EU on resolving the post-Brexit dispute were going well. “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.
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said it is “deeply regrettable” that the UK government was now 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”.
Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, was forced to apologise to election workers who are on standby to assist on the basis polling day will be December 15.
“For the nearly 6,000 people who are currently responding to our request (that) if an election was called on 15 December 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 15 December.”