The Northern Ireland Assembly has been recalled in a last-ditch effort to form a returned government before tonight’s midnight deadline.
Six months after the Stormont election, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to restore power-sharing with Sinn Fein over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
With no sign of breakthrough, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is poised to call a second election before Christmas.
Mr Heaton-Harris spoke to Northern Ireland party leaders in Belfast on Wednesday to reiterate the importance of restoring the returned government.
He urged them to use a meeting of the assembly on Thursday to come together and restore an executive that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland
Commenting after meeting with leaders, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “Time is running out, and people in Northern Ireland deserve locally elected decision-makers and an executive who can respond to the issues facing people, families and communities across Northern Ireland during this challenging time.
“We are clear that people deserve an accountable returned government and that was my message to party leaders today.”
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill, who was on course to become the first nationalist prime minister, said the “clock is ticking”.
Ms O’Neill is adamant there can be no return to direct rule from Westminster in the absence of a returned administration here.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said any suggestion of “joint authority” between London and Dublin would do “enormous harm”.
“Joint authority wouldn’t be consistent with the Belfast Agreement and I’m not going to be threatened and bullied,” he added.
There’s little appetite for another election just before Christmas given it will cost £6.5m during a cost of living crisis.
Those who represent a new generation of voters say they are tired of the same old politics in Northern Ireland.
Mark Knox runs Aspire NI, a charity seeking to close the educational attainment gap for young people from lower-income families.
He said: “Young people want to go on holiday, want to be able to afford to get a house, want to be able to grow up and get married, want a society that works rather than what flag is on the lamppost outside.
“Whether you’re British or Irish, if you can’t afford these things, what’s the use in either really?”
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Sophie Rusk, who has two young children, said there were far more pressing concerns for people than the Northern Ireland Protocol.
She added: “I don’t really care about the protocol anymore. I’m more concerned about the people in my community who can’t afford their oil bill, who can’t afford their food.
“Also, the fact that the politicians are just continuing to argue, what a lack of leadership?”
Callum Blaine, who benefitted from and now volunteers with Aspire, said politicians were “immature” in making everything about Irish unity or Northern Ireland being in the UK.
If there is a second election, it will illustrate the damage Brexit and the protocol has done to power-sharing at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.