The secretary of state will hold a series of meetings with the Stormont parties on Monday against the background of a fresh row over an enhanced role for the Irish government if devolution is not restored.
Monday’s bilateral meetings at Hillsborough Castle come little over 72 hours before the expiry of the deadline for electing an assembly speaker and executive ministers.
If the January 18 deadline passes without the institutions being restored, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is obliged to call an election to take place within 12 weeks. However, he is widely expected to table emergency legislation extending the election deadline and enabling a budget to be set.
Sinn Féin has submitted a recall petition that if successful would see an eleventh hour effort to restore devolution. The party, which has 27 MLAs, needs three more signatures to force a recall on Wednesday.
A speaker has failed to be elected at previous recalls over the past 23 months due to a lack of necessary support from the DUP.
As efforts to restore the Stormont institutions are expected to intensify after the Christmas break, comments from the Tory chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about giving Dublin greater input into northern affairs have sparked an angry unionist reaction.
Sir Robert Buckland made the remarks after SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told The Irish News there was a need for a “serious conversation about shared stewardship” if the DUP’s Stormont boycott persists.
Asked about the Foyle MP’s comments on BBC’s The View, Sir Robert said there was “no going back to that previous dispensation”.
He said the continued lack of devolution would mean “triggering certain aspects of the Good Friday Agreement” and “involvement of the Irish government, ultimately”.
DUP deputy leader Gavin Robinson accused the Westminster committee chair of making “hollow threats” and argued that there is no legal basis for joint authority.
“Sir Robert Buckland seems to be confused – it’s not often he is wrong, but on this he is,” the East Belfast MP said.
“The Republic of Ireland has no legal basis for governing Northern Ireland – such a step would be a further breach of the Belfast and successor agreements.”
Mr Robinson said it was “arrangements flowing from the Northern Ireland Protocol alone” which were preventing the restoration of power-sharing.
TUV leader Jim Allister has written to Sir Robert, arguing that the former minister is advocating unionists “operate this union-dismantling protocol through Stormont”.
“Only the unthinking and those indifferent to the union could do so,” his correspondence says.
But Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said any increased intervention by the British government would “require an Irish dimension”.
“This would essentially be consultative in nature, however, Alliance maintains it is wrong to see this as a binary choice between the DUP returning to the assembly under current rules versus direct rule,” he said.