Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland secretary is holding last-ditch talks with party leaders at Stormont as a deadline for calling a December election in the region approaches.
Chris Heaton-Harris, re-appointed to his role this week amid Tory turmoil, has warned that he will call a fresh poll if Friday’s deadline passes without an executive being formed.
The DUP has refused to engage in the wake of May’s election over its hatred of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit deal, so it has not been possible to form an executive for six months.
The new prime minister has not altered the government’s position on the issue, with a deadline to form a new administration expiring just after midnight early on Friday morning.
Mr Heaton-Harris has made clear that if no ministerial executive is in place by then, the UK government assumes a responsibility to call another election.
The Independent understands the most likely date for the second election is 15 December, though legislation means it could be held any time before 19 January 2023.
The DUP boycott is part of a campaign of opposition to checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea – with the unionist party continuing to insist it will not return to power-sharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s trade barriers.
The Tory government has vowed to gain powers to ditch protocol checks through the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, unless the EU gives way and agrees compromises to the Brexit deal.
The European Commission has warned that any unilateral action would be in breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action on trade tariffs.
UK- EU talks resumed recently, with both sides talking up the potential of reaching an agreed solution – but no breakthroughs are expected ahead of the election deadline.
Ahead of talks with the DUP and others on Wednesday, Mr Heaton-Harris tweeted: “My priority is for NI’s political leaders to come together and restore the executive … However, if the parties will not re-form, I will call an election.”
Mr Heaton-Harris’s deputy Steve Baker – the self-described “Brexit hardman” who came into government in September – told the DUP to “choke down” their position earlier this week.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Tuesday that the Sunak government had to deal with the protocol “once and for all” before his party could consider any return.
The Assembly is also being recalled on Thursday for a special sitting ahead of the deadline. Sinn Fein attempt to elect a new speaker – a pre-requisite for an executive to be appointed – but it looks set to fail since the DUP has made clear will use its veto to block it.
While Northern Ireland currently has no first or deputy first ministers, other ministers who served in the previous mandate have remained in post following May’s election.
But Friday’s deadline passes without a full executive having been established, ministers in place under caretaker arrangements will cease to hold office.
As fears grow that Northern Ireland’s next budget could be derailed, UK government officials are understood to be drawing up plans to give Whitehall civil servants enhanced powers.
On Wednesday, the leaders of a top business body warned that Northern Ireland businesses are facing a “tipping point” and require the help of a functioning executive.
The heads of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said businesses needed the certainty of decision-makers – warning against the return of the collapse of power-sharing seen between 2017 and 2020.
“We cannot repeat the stagnation,” they stated. “Today, we urge all our political stakeholders at Stormont and in Westminster to reach a resolution with the sense of urgency it demands.”