Northern Ireland faces fresh election as political deadlock deepens

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland on Thursday was facing the prospect of a second election in six months after the region's largest pro-British party refused to drop its boycott of power-sharing government, citing concerns about post-Brexit trade rules.

An election is likely to prolong a political stalemate that has frozen parts of the region's administration and will put a spotlight on deep political divisions over the trade rules just as Britain and the European Union try to find a compromise.

At an emergency session of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said it would not back the election of a speaker, effectively ensuring that a six-month deadline to form a government after elections in May is missed.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that largely ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed in the region, nationalists and unionists are required to agree on a speaker before electing a cross-community government.

"We do not believe that sufficient progress has been made to addressing the issues of concern to the people we represent," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told journalists.

The British government's minister for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, has repeatedly said that failure to form a government by the end of Thursday would leave him legally obliged to call a new election despite the fact that the region's main parties have said a vote would do little to break the deadlock.

"There is no doubt that having an election at this time won't change anything in terms of the issues and challenges we have in Northern Ireland," Donaldson said.

Heaton-Harris would have 12 weeks to call an election, but media in Northern Ireland have reported local officials preparing for a possible vote in mid-December.

The DUP, which pulled out of power-sharing in February, says it will not join the power-sharing government until its concerns about the post Brexit trading arrangements for the region as set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed.

Talks on the issue between the European Union and the British government on the protocol, part of Britain's EU divorce treaty, have been stalled by political turmoil in London.

Brussels, which says checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland are needed to protect its single market in the wake of Brexit as a land-border with EU member Ireland is impractical, has indicated an openness to easing some of the checks.

But the DUP insists there should be no restrictions on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom at all, something the EU has said it will not accept.

Some Irish nationalist politicians have accused the DUP of using concerns over the protocol as a cover to avoid serving under a Sinn Fein first minister after the nationalist party in May secured the most seats for the first time in the region's 100-year history.

Opinion polls have indicated that a new election would be unlikely to significantly change the result of May's election.

(Writing by Conor Humphries and Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Frances Kerry)