Decision on whether to extend deadline for Northern Ireland election due

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The Government will later announce whether a January deadline for holding an election in Northern Ireland is to be extended.

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

A failure to form a Stormont ministerial executive following May’s election has placed a legal responsibility on the Government to hold a poll by January 19.

Mr Heaton-Harris has already ruled out a December election and asking voters to head to the polls in January would present significant logistical challenges, as it would involve a campaign that runs through the festive period.

On Tuesday Downing Street said the restoration of powersharing was an “absolute priority”.

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

A DUP boycott of the devolved institutions, in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, has prevented an executive being formed in Belfast.

The region’s largest unionist party has made clear it will not countenance a return to powersharing until the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are scrapped.

Negotiations between London and Brussels aimed at securing changes to the protocol are continuing, with both sides talking up the prospect of a deal.

Extending the deadline would increase the likelihood of the negotiations producing something substantive ahead of any election date.

Local elections are already scheduled to take place on May 4 in Northern Ireland, so that could offer a potential date to hold an Assembly election as well.

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

As such, the Government could be tempted to hold a poll earlier in the year, in the hope of having a functioning powersharing administration in place when the landmark commemoration takes place.

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

Any move to extend the election deadline could potentially be bolted on to the budget legislation.

Existing legislation gave the Stormont parties almost six months to form an executive following the last election in May, which saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party for the first time.

The deadline to establish a new executive lapsed on October 28, at which point the Government assumed a legal responsibility to hold a fresh poll within 12 weeks.

Despite repeatedly vowing to set an election date the minute the deadline expired, Mr Heaton-Harris backtracked on his pledge, prompting Stormont parties to accuse him of a U-turn.

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