The UK government is to further delay calling an election in Northern Ireland to give Brexit talks a chance.
Senior EU sources said “slow progress” was being made in talks between the UK and Brussels, dampening hopes of a breakthrough by the end of January on the protracted dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič are to meet on Monday for a “stock take” of progress so far, but sources say significant differences remain on both sides despite the growing momentum.
Under legislation passed by parliament in December, if a new Stormont executive is not formed by 19 January, the government has a legal responsibility to call a snap assembly election by 13 April.
However, it is understood the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, will delay calling the ballot for some weeks as parties advise him an election will not deliver a devolved government until a protocol deal amenable to the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) is struck.
Political leaders including Cleverly, the Irish prime minister and his deputy and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, descended on Belfast this week to build on momentum and growing optimism about an end to the dispute.
But the DUP and a senior member of the European Research Group of Tory MPs made clear on Thursday major hurdles remained.
Starmer said on Friday that Rishi Sunak must face down the “Brexit purity cult” of Eurosceptics in the Conservative party and agree to a compromise in the talks.
Stormont has been in deadlock since last February when the DUP withdrew support for the executive and later refused to return to power sharing after elections last May.
On Thursday the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, indicated the party did not believe the conditions for its return to Stormont were being met, saying the UK and EU were nowhere near a deal.
Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said that under the Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern Act 2022, the 19 January was not a strict deadline for calling an election but the start of a six-week period during which an assembly election should be called.
“When that happens we can expect another six weeks or so for the election campaign.
“Working backwards from that, if the DUP isn’t satisfied on the protocol front by 19 January, a new election is the only means to have an assembly by the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April. This is something both British and Irish governments feel under moral pressure to deliver.”
She said Heaton-Harris could further delay an election with more emergency legislation but this would “not only pall the sense of momentum in the UK-EU talks but also the possibility of there being much to celebrate come April”.