Parties now have until end of June to strike a new Stormont deal as deadline shifts again
A deadline for politicians to restore a power-sharing Executive at Stormont has been put back for a third time until the end of June.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire has dropped plans to bring the curtain down on negotiations in early May and move towards direct rule or fresh elections.
There had even been claims that if he opted for another Assembly poll - the third inside a year - it could take place on the same day as the general election.
But after separate talks yesterday between Mr Brokenshire, Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and the five main Assembly parties, it emerged that his early May deadline has disappeared just like two earlier cut-off points.
Instead, the parties will be given a further three-week period to reach a deal - after the June 8 poll and as the marching season approaches its height.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said it appeared the talks are "dead in the water" despite a series of meetings planned for next week.
"It would be better for people in Northern Ireland, for public services and for business confidence, to get an agreement before the general election," she said.
"However, in real terms, I have to say that looks difficult because people are never in compromising mode when it comes to any election, let alone a general election which is shaping up to be quite a polarising one."
The Green Party's Northern Ireland leader Steven Agnew said: "It has always been the case that the real deadline was the end of June.
"This is when Northern Ireland drops off a budget cliff and funding for vital public services will run out, and thousands in the community and voluntary sector risk losing their jobs.
"At this point we will be faced with the option of having a functioning Northern Ireland Executive put through a budget in the Assembly, or the Westminster Government will need to step in to clean up the mess of the traditional parties.
"We should never cede power to a likely Tory Government in Westminster. It is long past the point where the traditional parties need to stop party political squabbles and put the people first."
Yesterday, Sinn Fein accused the Government of preferring no Assembly to one which opposes Brexit, saying it was treating local people who voted to stay in the EU like "collateral damage".
The charge was put directly to Mr Brokenshire by Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill.
Afterwards, she said: "I told him that the British Government have done nothing over the course of the last seven weeks to achieve an agreement.
"There is a growing belief among nationalists and people who voted to remain in the European Union that the British Government would prefer no local Assembly to one which stands against the Tories' reckless Brexit agenda.
"It's clear that the people of the north who voted to remain in the EU are regarded as saboteurs by Theresa May and her clique of Tory Brexiteers.
"We are no more than collateral damage.
"Theresa May needs to hear clearly from the people of the north that we don't want Brexit, we don't want a border and we don't want Tory cuts and austerity."
At the meetings, Mr Brokenshire outlined legislation he intends to table today allowing for rates to be collected, which will have to be fast-tracked to go through Parliament before it is dissolved on May 3.
The new date at the end of June is expected to be contained within emergency legislation due to be published today, clearing the way for the collection of rates.
Labour shadow Secretary of State Dave Anderson accused the Prime Minister of treating the people of Northern Ireland with contempt.
"They're being ignored by this government in exactly the same way as they were ignored pre-Brexit when people were saying to them: 'Are you really aware what you're doing?'" he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers, who headed a delegation which met business and civic leaders yesterday, said his party understood the negative impact the ongoing stalemate is having on business confidence and hampering efforts to attract foreign direct investment.
"We want to get back to work and we fully recognise the dangers of a prolonged period of rudderless rule by officials in the absence of a fully functioning Stormont," he said.
by noel mcadam