Reports say Stormont poll earmarked for late February

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris

A STORMONT election could be called in late February to allow time for the EU and UK to strike a deal over the protocol, according to reports.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is on Wednesday expected to outline his "next steps" after last week rowing back on his commitment to call an election immediately after the passing of last month's deadline for restoring an executive.

Under legislation introduced earlier this year, Mr Heaton-Harris is obliged to call an election within 12 weeks of October 28.

The restoration of the institutions is being blocked by the DUP, which refuses to nominate a deputy first minister in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But according to Bloomberg, Westminster will legislate to extend the deadline with a return to the polls scheduled for late February.

Extending the deadline for an election from January 20 would enable time for a deal with the EU and create an opportunity for an executive to be in place by April's 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Meanwhile, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said he believes a deal between the EU and UK on the protocol is "doable by the end of the year".

The Fine Gael deputy leader said compromise in the coming weeks on revised post-Brexit trade rules would enable the restoration of power-sharing without another election.

His remarks came less than 24 hours after European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said a fresh deal on the protocol could happen within weeks, with the right "political will".

Briefing foreign journalists, Mr Coveney said his most recent discussions with senior UK leaders indicated "a real intent in London to try to resolve the protocol issues through negotiation over the next few weeks and months".

"The EU will respond to that generously - I know they will," he said.

The minister pointed to Thursday’s expected meeting between Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the British-Irish Council summit in Jersey as likely to signal whether such a breakthrough by Christmas is possible.

“We hope that the focus will move away from unilateral action towards partnership," he said.

"The UK and EU need to be partners."