Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February

London (AFP) - Northern Ireland on Wednesday appeared headed for a second election this year, after UK government efforts to resolve months of political stalemate over its post-Brexit status failed to find a breakthrough.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Britain’s Northern Ireland minister, has been holding talks with the political parties in a fresh bid to get them to form a new executive.

If no agreement is reached by Friday, London will be legally required to call early elections for the devolved assembly in the volatile province.

It has been without a functioning government since February, after the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed the executive over its staunch opposition to post-Brexit trade rules there.

It wants the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by London and Brussels as part of Britain’s 2019 Brexit deal overhauled or scrapped entirely. They say it weakens the province’s place within the UK.

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

The measures, which effectively keep Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market and customs union, were agreed to avoid the return of a hard land border with the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.

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

- Finn Fein appeal -

Pro-Irish party Sinn Fein scored a historic first elections win in May, further complicating efforts to restore power-sharing.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Wednesday he had reiterated to Heaton-Harris the need “to clear away the debris of the protocol”. An election would do little to resolve the standoff, he said.

“I don’t think it helps us to get any quicker towards the solution that we need or to get the political institutions back up and running,” he added.

Donaldson noted the party was nonetheless ready to contest a fresh ballot.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill, who is set to become Northern Ireland’s first minister if the executive can be restarted, renewed her call for the DUP to end its boycott.

“I appeal to those blocking an executive, to work with the rest of us & put money into people’s pockets,” she tweeted on Wednesday.

Britain’s government, wracked by political turmoil which has seen three prime ministers in two months, has urged Brussels to revise the protocol, and is passing contentious legislation to rip it up.

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