Squabbling between the UK, EU and politicians in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit arrangements for the region look set to drag on for another year as the Stormont election deadline was pushed back.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary, said he was disappointed to have to delay the date for calling elections until next January.
It was announced by No 10 Downing Street on Thursday amid speculation a deal with Brussels to break the Protocol stalemate is imminent.
Mr Heaton-Harris said voters in Northern Ireland — who have been in political limbo since May, lacking a devolved executive and a Stormont assembly — are not widely in favour of elections in the current climate.
At a meeting in Belfast with the main parties on Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris outlined the government’s intentions. He told the parties that while he has extended the period for formation to next year, the legislation will also enable the government to bring this period to an early end with elections held sooner, if necessary.
The financial year's budget for Northern Ireland was also discussed and Mr Heaton-Harris stressed to the politicians the “importance of restoring the executive in the interests of people in Northern Ireland”.
After the meeting, he said: “It is disappointing that further legislation to extend the period for executive formation has had to be introduced but I am aware that many people in Northern Ireland are not in favour of another assembly election at this time.
“I’ve been encouraged by my discussions with the parties today but there is no doubt that the absence of a devolved government is having an impact on Northern Ireland, with important legislation and public services affected by the lack of an executive.
“My priority remains the restoration of fully functioning, power-sharing institutions and I will continue to work with the Northern Irish parties to ensure this happens as soon as possible.”
The extended deadline means Stormont, where the devolved Northern Irish government will sit, may not be up and running in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, described Thursday's meeting as “at times a little bit tetchy”.
He said his party still does not have all the information it requires to give positive ideas for a budget for 2023-24.
“We talked about the Protocol … it was the same noises that we’ve heard before in that the negotiations continue, they are good negotiations, there is no deal yet,” he said. “There are significant gaps still, they’re working away at absolutely no time frame.”
Bertie Ahern, the former Irish taoiseach (prime minister) who signed the deal with Tony Blair in 1998, said a dose of compromise was needed to break the deadlock over the Protocol.
Asked by The National if he was worried about a potential return to sectarian violence should the political crisis drag on, Mr Ahern said he was not.
“I don’t think that’s on the agenda,” he said. “I am hopeful we can find a compromise.”