Northern Ireland is facing a race against time to break the deadlock at Stormont after ministers warned they will have to trigger an election next week.
The DUP has been refusing to take up the Deputy First Minister role due to the ongoing dispute over the post-Brexit protocol for the province.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, both sides of the sectarian divide must agree to participate for powersharing to function.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had been expected announce a date for a poll today – potentially December 15.
Speaking in Belfast this afternoon, he admitted he had few ‘options’ under the law. But he put off the final decision.
‘I have had lots and lots of talks with all the parties and will continue to do so,’ Mr Heaton-Harris said.
‘I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election.
‘So you’ll hear more from me on that particular point next week.’
Northern Ireland is bracing for another election before Christmas after a deadline to restore Stormont (pictured) was missed
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted it is the fault of the UK government that devolved government in Northern Ireland is not functioning
Posting on Twitter today, Mr Heaton-Harris said he is ‘extremely disappointed’ that an executive has not been formed and he will provide an update on his ‘legal duty to act’
A six-month legislative timeframe to form an administration expired in the early hours of today.
With no ministerial executive in place, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election.
While Mr Heaton-Harris has not yet laid out the details, there has been speculation the poll would be held on December 15.
Stormont ministers, who have been operating in shadow form since the Assembly collapsed earlier this year, also ceased to hold office at midnight.
Responsibility for running devolved departments will now pass to senior civil servants, although their powers are limited.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said this morning that elections will ‘definitely happen’.
‘I think it’s regrettable the parties were not able to come together to form that executive,’ she told Sky News.
‘But the law was clear. We passed the legislation that this would happen and clearly there wasn’t sufficient agreement to be able to avoid the elections.
‘That wasn’t in the hands of the Government, that was in the hands of the parties representing the different communities in Northern Ireland.
‘I hope that the next elections will be an opportunity for people to reconsider their approach, recognising the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was signed only a couple of years ago, and we need to make sure that we do what we can to work together to try and make that come to fruition.’
Asked if there is any chance the elections could be avoided through new legislation, she said: ‘They will definitely happen.’
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted it is the fault of the UK government that devolved government in Northern Ireland is not functioning.
‘We’ve had six months in which to do something about the protocol, and during those six months we have had three prime ministers, we have had the Government changed often and we haven’t seen the progress that is needed,’ he told BBC Radio Ulster.
‘I think the Government would be within its rights to say, given that those six months have elapsed and progress hasn’t been made, that we need a further period to sort this out, get a solution on the protocol that restores Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market and that will see the institutions restored immediately.’
Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy dismissed the notion that the DUP tactic of refusing to form an executive was exerting any pressure on the Westminster government to act over the protocol.
He told the BBC: ‘The chaos and the infighting that is going on within the Tory government means their focus is entirely on themselves, and if there is a negotiation with the EU, that will take place because the British government want it to take place not because the DUP are punishing the people of the north by preventing them having their own institutions.
‘The DUP action is harming only the people that they represent, and we all collectively represent, and is serving no purpose other than to do that.’
While Mr Heaton-Harris has not yet laid out the details, there has been speculation the poll would be held on December 15
MLAs met during a recalled sitting of the Assembly on Thursday, but a bid to elect a new speaker – which must be done before the election of first and deputy first ministers – did not proceed as the DUP refused to support the nominations.
The session was then suspended.
The DUP’s boycott of the Stormont institution is part of a campaign of opposition to the protocol, and the party says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.
The last Northern Ireland Assembly election was held in May of this year, and Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party for the first time.