Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February

Belfast (AFP) - A deadline to resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland’s regional government passed at midnight on Friday, setting the UK-run province on a course to its second election this year amid a political stand-off over divisive post-Brexit trade rules.

The expiration of the legal cut-off point for the creation of a joint executive between pro-Ireland nationalists and pro-UK unionists, which the British government has vowed to enforce, came after parties made a last-ditch attempt to restart Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.

In an argumentative Thursday session, lawmakers briefly reconvened for the first time in months for a special sitting but failed, in a widely anticipated outcome, to elect a speaker needed to form a new executive.

The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party blocked the resumption of power-sharing due to concerns about the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol governing post-Brexit trade.

The party has boycotted the assembly since February, and in spite of the results of May elections, calling for the protocol to be overhauled or scrapped entirely.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters Thursday the party would not vote for a new speaker because insufficient action had been taken to address their demands since they collapsed the executive.

“We need to remove the rubble of the protocol that has undermined our economy, that has inhibited our ability to trade within our own country,” he said ahead of the failed vote.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson says the party would not vote for a new speaker because insufficient action had been taken to address their demands

Donaldson said the arrangements “changed our constitutional status without our consent” and were “harming businesses and driving up the cost of living for every single person in Northern Ireland”.

However, Matthew O’Toole of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) said holding another election was a “farce” and that the continued boycott had left him “ashamed of this place”.

“While this assembly sat mothballed and silent people’s homes have got colder, their trust in politics has fallen even further and their lives have gotten harder,” he said.

- ‘Perpetual standoff’ -

New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s had implored the parties to “get back to Stormont”, arguing that people there “deserve a fully functioning and locally elected executive”, his official spokesman said.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Britain's Northern Ireland minister for the last seven weeks, is an arch-Eurosceptic

Chris Heaton-Harris, Britain’s Northern Ireland minister for the last seven weeks, held talks with the political parties on Wednesday in a fresh bid to get them to form a new executive.

The minister, an arch-Eurosceptic, had said repeatedly he would not hesitate to call an election on Friday if the legal limit passed, with December 15 the expected date for the new poll.

“If the executive is not formed by 28 October, I will call an election,” the minister had said in a statement. “Time is running out.”

Northern Ireland has now been without a functioning government for nine months, with pro-Irish party Sinn Fein winning a historic first election in May which is seen as further complicating the political situation.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill – who was set to become first minister if the executive was restarted – condemned the DUP’s “perpetual standoff with the public, the majority of whom they do not speak for or indeed represent”.

- Delicate balance of peace -

The DUP insists the protocol – agreed by London and Brussels as part of Britain’s 2019 Brexit deal – must be addressed first.

It claims the pact, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market and customs union, weakens the province’s place within the United Kingdom.

Matthew O'Toole of the Social Democratic and Labour Party says holding another election was a "farce"

Many unionists also argue it is threatening the delicate balance of peace between the pro-Irish nationalist community and those in favour of continued union with Britain.

The protocol was agreed to avoid the return of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member.

Eliminating that hard border was a key strand of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Britain’s Conservative government, which has had three prime ministers in two months, has urged Brussels to agree to wholesale revisions of the protocol.

London is also in the midst of passing contentious legislation to override it unilaterally.

That has sparked fears of a trade war and worsening relations with Europe when the economic landscape is already gloomy.

The impasse was discussed in a phone call on Wednesday between Sunak and Irish premier Micheal Martin.

Sunak also spoke by phone to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who said on Twitter that she hopes to find “joint solutions under the protocol… that will provide stability and predictability”.