The UK Government has dismissed pursuing direct rule for Northern Ireland as MPs prepared to extend the deadline for holding a new Assembly election.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris expressed his “profound disappointment” at the failure to re-establish a functioning Assembly and Executive at Stormont, adding it remains his “top priority”.
But he insisted a return to direct rule from London is “100 per cent” not on his agenda.
His assurances came as MPs considered the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.
This legislation would further delay the requirement for the formation of an executive at Stormont until January 18 2024 and delay an Assembly election to April 11th, 2024 at the latest.
The devolved institutions collapsed last year following a DUP boycott in protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, with talks ongoing between the UK and EU to find a breakthrough.
Several attempts to restore the Assembly have failed as the DUP, the largest unionist party, has refused to back the election of a Speaker.
Senior civil servants have been left running Stormont departments.
Mr Heaton-Harris told the Commons: “It remains my view that a further Assembly election at this time would be unwelcome, it’d be expensive and crucially it’d bring us no closer to our objective of delivering fully-functioning devolved institutions.
“At this critical juncture the best approach to facilitating the return of those institutions is one built on flexibility.
“Flexibility to allow the time and space for negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol between the EU and UK to continue, and flexibility to allow the parties in Northern Ireland collaborating to form a government and not competing in an unwelcome election.”
Conservative MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, intervened to asked Mr Heaton-Harris: “In order to concentrate the minds of those who hold the future of devolution in their hands, could I invite him to confirm from the despatch box that joint authority is not on his agenda, direct rule is not on his direct agenda but making sure devolution works is up front and centre?”
Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I can confirm those points 100 per cent.”
Liberal Democrat former minister Alistair Carmichael described a previous attempt at direct rule as “just about the most inadequate procedure imaginable”, adding: “Ultimately if you don’t have a functioning Assembly, you don’t have direct rule or joint authority, then the people who lose out are not the politicians, it’s the people who rely on the public services.”
For Labour, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle said the vacuum caused by the absence of Stormont is having a “profound” impact on Northern Ireland.
He said: “I don’t think we’d accept that in any other part of our country.”