The latest deadline to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland has passed with the devolved institutions in Belfast still in cold storage.

The British government has once again assumed a legal duty to call a snap Assembly election within 12 weeks.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris made clear he will not make an announcement about any potential election date for at least several weeks.

He has given himself time to consider options in the hope that the British government and EU can strike a deal an the interim on the issue at the heart of the power-sharing impasse - Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol.

If a deal emerges that convinces the DUP to return to Stormont then the British government could legislate to avoid the need for a fresh election.

The ongoing DUP block on the functioning of power-sharing, in protest at the protocol, has ensured the Stormont institutions have remained in flux since the last Assembly election in May.

The ministerial executive collapsed three months earlier when the DUP withdrew its first minister.

Mr Heaton-Harris has expressed hope that a breakthrough on EU/UK talks on Irish Sea trade can deliver a solution that facilitates the return of power-sharing.

Yesterday, Mr Heaton-Harris and fellow UK ministers joined counterparts from the Irish Government for a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.

Commenting on his next steps, he said: "I'm going to talk to all the parties concerned.

"You will be aware that there are also important talks going on in Brussels between the British government and European Union.

"And if we can solve one problem, we might be able to solve another.

"So, I think it's worth me taking the time to consider my options."

The Taoiseach has said he has some regrets over the protocol being imposed without the support of unionists and nationalists.

Speaking on the BBC, Leo Varadkar said the protocol was working, but understood why unionists felt it has "weakened the union" between Northern Ireland and Britain.

"I do have regrets and the regret I have is that in the same way Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without the support of both communities, the protocol was imposed on Northern Ireland without the support of two communities and that wasn't possible at the time for various reasons in part because the Executive was not functioning so there was no one to speak for Northern Ireland and that has created difficulties."

Leo Varadkar met with leader of the UK Labour Party Keir Starmer in Davos

He said economically the protocol is working "broadly speaking", with no hard border between the north and south, and the single market's integrity has been protected.

Speaking from World Economic Forum in Davos, he also said Northern Ireland's economy was "outperforming the UK economy".

He said he is optimistic there could be an agreement between the EU and the UK before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

While in Davos, the Taoiseach also held a bilateral meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer.

They discussed the ongoing talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and expressed hope that good progress can be made, a Government spokesperson said.

Economic prospects for Ireland and the UK were also raised, with Mr Varadkar pointing to growth in the Irish economy but how inflation is adversely affecting people and business.

Both leaders expressed solidarity with Ukraine and the need to continue providing a safe refuge for people fleeing the conflict, and the challenges that brings.

The Taoiseach also briefed Mr Starmer on the new Child Poverty and Wellbeing Unit set up in the Department of the Taoiseach, inspired by the Blair/Brown model.


What is the NI Protocol?

The protocol is part of the Withdrawal Agreement - the international treaty under which the UK left the EU.

It was a compromise to prevent a hard border with checks on goods crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and the EU's Single Market.

Under the deal, Northern Ireland left the EU along with the rest of the UK.

But the British government accepted that it would stay aligned with the EU’s Single Market rules for goods.

That allowed the checks to be done at Northern Ireland’s ports instead of along the 300-mile land border. It has been dubbed 'The Border in the Irish Sea'.

The EU’s rules on customs and regulation of agri-food products also continue to apply to goods arriving in NI.


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Tánaiste Micheál Martin said there was an obligation on the DUP to drop its Stormont boycott irrespective of what emerges from EU/UK talks on the protocol.

Mr Martin also attended yesterday's intergovernmental meeting.

"There's an overriding obligation irrespective of those talks on the DUP, in my view, to fulfil the mandate of the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"And I'm passionately of the view that when you have elections, what should naturally follow is the convening of an assembly, or a parliament and a government - that's democracy in action and the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less and I've made these points to the DUP and to other political parties.

"I made those points three years ago when the Assembly was collapsed by another party (Sinn Fein) and we had about a three-year absence and it was something I could never accept as a democrat."

Polling day is usually around six weeks after an election is announced, so Mr Heaton-Harris would have until mid-March to call a poll if it is to be held before the 12-week period expires in mid-April.

That would give Mr Heaton-Harris another six weeks to see what emerges from the UK-EU talks on the protocol.

If a deal emerges in the coming weeks, and the DUP agrees to re-enter power-sharing on the back of it, Mr Heaton-Harris could then ask the British parliament to retrospectively extend the 19 January deadline for forming an executive - meaning the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a fresh election.

The 19 January was the latest in a series of deadlines the parties have been given to resurrect devolution following May's election.