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Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire urges last-gasp breakthrough

By Allan Preston

For three weeks the political parties at Stormont have been told that 4pm today represents a line in the sand.

It now seems certain that that deadline will pass without a deal, with Sinn Fein insisting that it will not nominate a Speaker nor ministers to the Executive.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is now legally obliged to intervene by calling an election “within a reasonable period of time”. Just how elastic he can make that phrase will be key.

If he doesn’t, it would likely mean reinstating direct rule — something he has repeatedly said he wants to avoid.

It’s understood he will make a further statement today once the 4pm deadline has been reached, and is also remaining in Belfast to facilitate any further discussions the parties wish to have with him.

In a statement yesterday he made one last plea for agreement. “I am determined to see a functioning Executive in place at Stormont,” he said.

“I have spoken to the Prime Minister this afternoon and this remains the UK Government’s continuing priority. This is the necessary first step to addressing the issues of greatest public concern — health, education and other public services in Northern Ireland.

“Even at this stage I urge political parties to agree to work to form an Executive and provide people here with the strong and stable devolved government that they want.”

What may provide him some breathing space is the fact that Sinn Fein has insisted it will be back at Stormont Castle today.

“Of course we’ll be here,” said Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill yesterday afternoon. “Sinn Fein have come at this with the right attitude. We’ve consistently been here every day with our full team from day one wanting to find a way through all the issues.”

Her party leader Gerry Adams also stated that the party believed a deal was still possible at some point.

“We’re not going back to the status quo,” he said. “But will we be back, will we get the institutions in place? Yes.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party had offered to form an Executive “without pre-conditions”, hoping ministers could at least agree a budget.

Mrs Foster went on to state “there was little to suggest that Sinn Fein wants to secure agreement”, and accused it of ignoring other parties.

“At every opportunity they have resisted involving the other parties and consequently no round table discussions were possible during this round of discussions,” she said.

“Throughout the course of Saturday, Sinn Fein behaved as if they were the only participants whose mandate mattered. This cannot and will not be the basis for a successful outcome.”

At this stage, perhaps the only thing the two largest parties agree on is a will to keep talking, with Mrs Foster commenting: “The DUP stands ready to continue to discuss how we can secure new arrangements for Northern Ireland.”

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