Rishi Sunak’s government has pushed back a deadline for calling a fresh Assembly election in Northern Ireland by a year.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the local parties now have until 18 January 2024 to form a ministerial executive at Stormont.
If that deadline passes, then the government would come under a legal responsibility to hold a snap poll within the following 12 weeks.
The DUP collapsed the devolved executive last year in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, and has made clear it will not lift its block on powersharing until radical changes are made to trading arrangements.
The EU and UK are engaged in intensive negotiations amid mounting speculation that a deal is on the cards to reduce the red tape on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
However, an agreement on the protocol would not necessarily lead to the return of powersharing, as the DUP has insisted any deal that may emerge must meet its tests on trade, sovereignty and accountability if it is to countenance re-entering Stormont.
With the powersharing vacuum having continued following last May’s Assembly election, several deadlines for the calling of another election have come and gone.
With the last one passing on January 19, the Government had been under a responsibility to call a poll within a 12-week timeframe. That duty will now fall away following Mr Heaton-Harris’s move.
The cabinet minister will now table legislation in parliament – the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – to extend the deadline.
“Having spoken to political representatives, businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, I have concluded that another election at this time is not the best course of action to facilitate the restoration of the executive,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said pushing the Stormont Assembly election back would give time and space for negotiations over the protocol and the restoration of the Assembly.
He said: “We can go forward with a sense of purpose. There is a sense that if we had an election it would achieve absolutely nothing. Now we know we have that time and space to come up with a better solution.”
SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole said: “There was an election last May. People returned parties to form an executive. That needs to happen now.”
“We have a process between the UK and the EU which looks like it is about to lead to a set of solutions in terms of smoothing goods movement. It is a good thing that in the middle of that we are not going to have another Assembly election.”
Mr Heaton-Harris will hold a roundtable meeting with Stormont leaders later on Thursday to discuss the move. On Wednesday, he met the EU’s chief negotiator on the protocol, Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels.
“I reiterated that the UK government is working hard to resolve the problems caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the desire to see an agreed solution with the EU,” said Mr Heaton-Harris. I was clear that this extension does not influence protocol discussions.
“I very much hope that the parties will recognise the importance of getting back to work, so that a functioning Executive can take the actions needed to address the challenges facing public services in Northern Ireland.”
Civil servants are currently running public services in Northern Ireland in the absence of elected ministers. They have taken the reins at a time when Stormont is facing a financial overspend running to hundreds of millions of pounds.
Stormont’s financial problems are also set to feature significantly at Mr Heaton-Harris’s meeting with the main parties. In the absence of devolution, the responsibility for setting a budget for the coming financial year lies with the Northern Ireland secretary.
In January, the parties were asked to meet foreign secretary James Cleverly and Mr Heaton-Harris in Belfast to discuss the protocol deadlock.
However, Sinn Fein did not take part after party president Mary Lou McDonald was not invited, and the SDLP declined to take part in protest at the exclusion of Ms McDonald.
It is understood Ms McDonald has been invited to Thursday’s meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris.