Enda Kenny has no say over direct rule, say furious unionists
Unionist politicians are insisting that a return to direct rule is on the agenda if a political deal can't be brokered this week, despite comments from Taoiseach Enda Kenny ruling it out.
The DUP, Ulster Unionists, and TUV all reacted angrily to Mr Kenny's remarks claiming that he and Prime Minister Theresa May had agreed that direct rule wasn't an option if the talks fail.
Unionists asserted that the Taoiseach was totally wrong about what would happen if negotiations to restore devolution don't make progress before next Monday's crunch deadline.
And they warned him that he couldn't dictate Northern Ireland's political future, which was a matter for the British Government alone.
Downing Street also moved to distance itself from Mr Kenny's comments yesterday. A Government spokesman said that while it wanted to see devolution restored, and "was not speculating on any other outcome", maintaining political stability in Northern Ireland was its responsibility.
Talks to save the power-sharing Executive at Stormont are set to intensify today, as the third and final week of meetings involving the parties, London and Dublin begins.
Speaking in New York during his St Patrick's Day visit, Mr Kenny said that if the negotiations failed, Secretary of State James Brokenshire would then have to either call another Assembly election or restore direct rule.
"I have spoken very clearly to the British Prime Minister and we are both agreed that there will be no return to direct rule from London," the Taoiseach said.
"So I do hope that the Executive can be put in place, because this has implications for the peace process."
Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott said he was shocked by Mr Kenny's remarks.
"I have had extensive contact with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office in recent times," the MP said.
"There has been no indication whatsoever that direct rule is not an option for Downing Street.
"I don't know why Enda Kenny is making such spurious claims.
"The political arrangements for Northern Ireland are not his concern anyway, they are purely a matter for the British Government."
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: "The comments from the Taoiseach are not in accordance with what we understand to be the UK Government's position.
"As Downing Street has made clear, it is the UK Government that is responsible for the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and no one else."
TUV leader Jim Allister accused Mr Kenny of attempting to portray himself as wielding far more political clout than is the reality.
Mr Allister said: "Enda Kenny has been trying to create the impression that he has a controlling influence on our future.
"It is not for him to say what the political arrangements for Northern Ireland will be.
"Indeed, in quite a short time he won't even have a say over political arrangements in the Irish Republic, because he will no longer be Taoiseach."
Mr Allister said the Government's current public position that there was no alternative to devolution was to be expected.
"They want to ensure the maximum chances for a deal this week, so they can't say anything else. They don't want to readily talk about other alternatives," he said.
"They are stressing that if a deal isn't reached there must be an election. That might or might not be the case. The law currently says that it is so, but the law can be changed quite quickly."
Mr Allister said it was possible that Northern Ireland could continue in political limbo until the autumn.
"Westminster is undoubtedly reluctant to go back to direct rule. But that doesn't have to happen immediately after the suspension of devolution, there are other options," he said.
"The Stormont institutions could exist in a shadow form without full-blown direct rule.
"With some sort of interim arrangements in place, they could limp on through the summer. However, financial reasons would dictate that the bull had to be taken by the horns come September."