VOTERS in Northern Ireland are to go to the polls for a second time this year after Unionists refused to help form a government in a protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed there would be a snap poll after the failure to restore devolved rule at Stormont, but did not announce a date.

Admitting he faced “limited options”, he said he would meet with Assembly parties next week and provide more information, although December 15 has been tipped as a possible date.

The six-month deadline to form an executive passed at midnight on Thursday, when the UK Government assumed a legal responsibility to call an election.

Speaking in Belfast, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I am deeply disappointed we are where we are now.

“This is a really serious situation. As of a minute past midnight last night, there are no longer ministers in office in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“I will take limited but necessary steps to ensure public services do continue and to protect the public finances.

“But there is a limit to what the Secretary of State can do in these circumstances.”

Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, architect of the Good Friday Agreement, called it a “sad day” for Northern Ireland, and predicted the election would not “change a damn thing”.

He said Mr Heaton-Harris had talked himself into the election in recent weeks after stating he had a legal obligation to call one unless power-sharing returned in time.

He said: “I think it’s a pity, I think it’s a sad day and I feel sorry for people in the north because this won’t decide what’s in the [Northern Ireland] Protocol. The only thing that will decide the protocol are the negotiations that are necessary.”

The DUP, which came second to Sinn Fein for the first time in May’s elections, blocked the restoration of power sharing as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP have demanded the protocol be overhauled or ditched, arguing its creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea is a threat to the United Kingdom.

Talks between Brussels and London to resolve the outstanding issues are ongoing. 

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson blamed the UK government.

He told BBC Radio Ulster: “We’ve had six months in which to do something about the protocol, and during those six months we have had three prime ministers, we have had the Government changed often and we haven’t seen the progress that is needed.

“I think the Government would be within its rights to say, given that those six months have elapsed and progress hasn’t been made, that we need a further period to sort this out, get a solution on the protocol that restores Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market and that will see the institutions restored immediately.”

Mr Heaton-Harris said he has held “lots and lots” of talks with all the Assembly parties.

He said: “I hear it when parties say that they really do not want an election at all but nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the law that means I need to call an election.

“Nearly all the parties who have been saying this won’t help the situation actually signed up to the rules that make this situation happen. Why call it now? Because I am legally bound to do so.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “We do need to get the institutions in Northern Ireland back up and running and the sooner we can do that, the better. 

“That requires our Government to get people around the negotiating table and to resolve the issues on the protocol.

“I think they can be resolved. I think there are amendments that can be made to the protocol without ripping it up.

“But the Government needs to get people around the table and get that agreement because at the moment we’ve got a very difficult situation for people in Northern Ireland who are suffering as a result of the government’s failure to convene this.”