UK to call Northern Ireland election within next 12 weeks

Britain publishes post-Brexit legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) -The British government on Friday promised to call a fresh election to Northern Ireland's devolved parliament within the next 12 weeks in a bid to break a political stalemate that could eventually leave the region facing direct rule from London.

But it declined to set a date for the vote, which is likely to put a spotlight on deep political divisions over post-Brexit trade rules.

"I'm under a legal duty to call an election within 12 weeks," Chris Heaton-Harris, the British government minister responsible for Northern Ireland told journalists in Belfast. "You'll hear more from me on that particular point next week."

Media in Northern Ireland had named Dec. 15 as the most likely date for the vote.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since February when the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party began a boycott of power-sharing in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Elections in May, in which Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein took the most seats for the first time, failed to break the deadlock. The British government says it is legally obliged to call a new election after 24 weeks, a period that ended on Thursday.

The region's main political parties have said they expect a new vote will do little to break the stalemate while the disruption to governance - as civil servants with limited power take over from caretaker ministers - could anger voters.

The DUP says it will not join a power-sharing government, which is compulsory in Northern Ireland, until its concerns about the post-Brexit trading arrangements under the Northern Ireland Protocol of Britain's EU divorce agreement are addressed.

Following a lengthy stalemate, Britain and the EU resumed talks earlier this month on how to fix problems with the protocol, and Irish officials had reported encouraging signs before Sunak replaced Liz Truss as British leader on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Sachin Ravikumar; writing by Conor Humphries; editing by Angus MacSwan and Toby Chopra)