Decision on whether to extend deadline for Northern Ireland elections

The government will announce at a later date whether the January deadline for holding an election in Northern Ireland should be extended.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will make a statement in the House of Commons under pressure to push back the deadline to give more time for a post-Brexit trade deal to be struck.

The failure to form a Stormont ministerial executive after the May election placed the legal responsibility on the government to hold a poll by January 19.

Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled out an election in December and asking voters to go to the polls in January would present significant logistical challenges, as it would involve campaigning over the festive period.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said restoring power-sharing was a “top priority”.

The political vacuum at Stormont was the first item on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday.

A DUP boycott of devolved institutions, in protest at Northern Ireland’s Brexit protocol, prevented the formation of an executive in Belfast.

The region’s largest Unionist party has made clear it will not accept a return to power-sharing until the economic barriers of the protocol on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland are removed.

Negotiations between London and Brussels to secure changes to the protocol continue, with both sides raising the prospect of a deal.

Extending the deadline would increase the likelihood that the negotiations will produce something substantial before any election date.

Local elections are already scheduled for May 4 in Northern Ireland, which could also offer a potential date to hold an Assembly election.

However, that would mean Stormont would still be in limbo come April, when the 25th anniversary of the historic Good Friday peace deal will be marked.

As such, the government may be tempted to hold a poll earlier in the year, hoping to have a power-sharing administration in place when the historic commemoration takes place.

Mr Heaton-Harris is already set to table a bill in Westminster in the coming weeks that would pass Stormont’s annual budget in the absence of deputy ministers.

Any initiative to extend the election deadline could potentially be incorporated into budget legislation.

Existing legislation has given Stormont parties almost six months to form an executive after the last election in May, which saw Sinn Fein become the largest party for the first time.

The deadline to establish a new executive expired on October 28, when the government assumed the legal responsibility to hold a new poll within 12 weeks.

Despite repeatedly promising to set an election date the minute the deadline expired, Mr Heaton-Harris reneged on his promise, prompting Stormont’s parties to accuse him of half a round.

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