New Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said the prospect of calling an Assembly election before Christmas was not an “idle threat”.
After he met Alliance and UUP leaders, Mr Heaton-Harris said he could see a “landing zone” to resolve protocol issues and make Stormont institutions fully operational.
Asked if he would call a winter election if that didn’t happen, he replied: “That’s what the law says. I probably do. The law says so and I have no intention of changing the law.
“Is this an idle threat? I don’t think so. It’s not a threat at all, it’s just the fact that the law says that’s what I have to do on October 28th.
Mr Heaton-Harris urged people to judge him by his actions and his words. “I’m always keen to judge people on what I actually do rather than what they expect of me or what they think they know about me,” he added.
The Secretary of State said he looked forward to working with political leaders in the Republic. “I have a strong friendship with (Irish Foreign Minister) Simon Coveney, I’ve already reconnected with him over the phone.
“I’m really looking forward to working with him because I think there’s a positive place we can get to, a landing zone where we can reform the executive and I really want to aim for that,” he said.
“You can judge me by my actions and my words in this area. It won’t be long because all this has to move very quickly.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who has already met Sinn Féin and the DUP, held talks with Naomi Long and Doug Beattie on Tuesday. He is due to meet Colum Eastwood in London on Thursday.
Mr Beattie described the prospect of an Assembly election before Christmas as “absolutely outrageous”. He said he hoped some of the goodwill generated by the Queen’s death would be used in new talks between London and Brussels.
Under current rules, if there is no executive, ministers must step down on October 28 and the government will hold elections within 12 weeks.
Mr Beattie said: “That means an election by January 19. That’s the process. There’s no other process so we expect an election on December 8 or 15.
“I think it is absolutely outrageous that we go back to knocking on doors and putting up posters telling people to vote for us in a cost of living crisis, when people are sitting in their homes hungry and cold. We are asking them to vote when we have already failed.
“I think the election in the winter will definitely be brutal, but if it happens then it will.”
Asked if he thought the Government could introduce legislation to postpone the winter election, Mr Beattie said: “I don’t understand that they are going to do that. It would take primary legislation and I don’t see any appetite for that.
He said: “I realize that the sad circumstances of the last few days have created some goodwill and that there is going to be a new impetus in the negotiations between the UK and the EU regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol, and I think a change in language.
“Northern Ireland cannot be treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, but the absence of an executive is difficult.”
Asked about the prospect of an early election, DUP Finance Minister Gordon Lyons said: “Ultimately, that is a decision for the Secretary of State and the Government to make.
“Instead of focusing on elections now, I think we should focus on getting solutions to the problems we face because elections can come and go again. But that ultimately does not solve the problems we face.
“So let’s make sure we can sort out the problems we have right now, deal with the protocol and the problems it causes. I see that it should be done in a deliberative manner where people come together and try.
“There is an NI Protocol Bill and I hope that it will make its way through Parliament and become law in the absence of an outcome of the negotiations.”
Mr Heaton-Harris appointed Shailesh Vara as Secretary of State a fortnight ago after Liz Truss became Prime Minister.
After meeting Mitchell O’Neill and Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, he was criticized for not talking to smaller parties. The Queen’s death gave pause to political debate.