Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has taken a very different approach to the passing of a legal deadline for the restoration of power sharing at Stormont than he did in the autumn.

Then, he warned time-and-time again that he would trigger a fresh election before Christmas if devolution was not back up and running by a minute past midnight on 28 October.

But in the end, the Westminster grinch did not steal Christmas from the politicians and, instead, did what most observers had expected and changed the law to remove the obligation to call an election at that time.

This time, he is taking a much less dramatic approach, saying he will "use the next few weeks" to "carefully assess" all the options about what happens next.

As current legislation stands, the Northern Secretary must call an election to be held no later than 13 April – just three days after the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Given that it takes around six weeks to organise the logistics for an election and to give candidates time to hit the campaign trail, that means Mr Heaton-Harris has to make his decision and reveal his hand no later than 5 March.

So what are the options? What could happen next?

There are three possible outcomes.

Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has to make his decision no later than 5 March.

1. A deal the DUP accepts

The UK and EU strike a deal to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol that is acceptable to the DUP and it agrees to go back into power sharing.

That would restore the Stormont Executive and would remove the need for a fresh poll so the result of the election in May last year would stand.

Chris Heaton-Harris could extend the deadline for restoration without an election, on the basis that all the main parties were in agreement that the Stormont Executive was being revived, but needed time for talks before doing so.

At this stage that looks highly unlikely.

2. A deal the DUP does not accept

Jeffrey Donaldson has served as DUP leader since June 2021

The UK and EU reach an agreement on the protocol that is not acceptable to the DUP, but the British government tells the DUP it's "take it or leave it" and an election is called.

The DUP would then attempt to frame the election as de facto referendum on the protocol deal and possibly the very future of the Good Friday Agreement.

Just imagine that - if the election was held on 13 April, three days after the 25th anniversary - the future of the milestone political agreement that the Irish and British governments and the White House are eager to celebrate would instead be the focus of a hugely contentious and toxic debate about its very future.

3. No deal reached

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (left) with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in Belfast

None of the above happens and the UK and EU fail to reach agreement on the protocol within the next 12 weeks.

If the Northern Secretary did not believe a fresh election would break the political stalemate, he could go back to the House of Commons to introduce legislation to once again extend the deadline.

That would buy more time for the UK and EU negotiating teams to reach an agreement that the DUP could sign up to and avoid an election result that could harden the DUP’s position further and make it less likely to compromise at a future date.

At this stage, number three looks the most likely.

And it could happen again, and again.