Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks deadline extended after Northern Ireland's political leaders fail to reach agreement

Downing Street said the missed deadline 'does not mean the efforts to restore the executive are ending'

By Claire Williamson

Negotiations to strike a deal to restore a powersharing Executive at Stormont will continue over the weekend - despite Northern Ireland's politicians missing their 4pm statutory deadline.

The formal deadline was 4pm on Thursday but the timeframe to find agreement has been extended to Monday by the UK Government.

If no agreement materialises over the weekend, there are several options open to Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

They include setting another deadline for the talks process, calling a second snap Assembly election or reimposing some form of direct rule from London.

If a deal came to fruition over the weekend, the Government could pass legislation to retrospectively change Thursday's missed deadline to enable a new Executive to be formed without recourse to another election.

Downing Street confirmed talks to restore powersharing will be allowed to extend until Monday.

It's understood Mr Brokenshire told the parties he would take the weekend "to reflect" before he makes a statement in the House of Commons.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the missed deadline "does not mean the efforts to restore the executive are ending".

She said: "We are now allowing the parties space to continue the discussions."

On Thursday a planned sitting of the Assembly to nominate new Stormont ministers, was postponed from 12pm to 2pm and was then cancelled.

Earlier the DUP's Edwin Poots announced there would be "no breakthrough" ahead of Thursday's deadline.

Mr Poots said: "If Sinn Fein think they can collapse the institutions, get all they want and go back into government they have another think coming That is now how we do business.

There is not going to be a breakthrough leading to nominations today DUP's Edwin Poots

Speaking to the media again on Thursday evening, he warned: "This paralysis is not good for Northern Ireland. It will lead to job losses, particularly in the community sector in the very near future.

"Ultimately we're focused on getting a deal but, in the absence of that, junior ministers should be appointed to carry out the work that needs to be done in the interim."

His comments came after Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said it was "make your mind up time for the DUP" and said there was "sufficient time for these matters to be agreed".

Mr Murphy said he told Mr Brokenshire that Sinn Fein would "not countenance any return to Direct Rule".

In a statement after the initial deadline passed Sinn Fein MLA Carál Ní Chuilín said the party were "disappointed" that the Assembly session was cancelled.

She said: "We were disappointed that today’s meeting of the Assembly was postponed at the request of the DUP.

“The DUP has not agreed to resolve any of the major issues of concern, including Acht na Gaeilge, the Bill of Rights, marriage equality, anti-sectarian measures and legacy issues.

“Sinn Féin remains committed to securing credible political institutions, which have equality and respect at their core.

We reluctantly agreed to today's session of the Assembly being suspended Sinn Fein's Carál Ní Chuilín

Reacting to the latest missed deadline, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the public have "every right to be hugely frustrated and angry".

Mr Eastwood said: "The SDLP has been clear that time wasn’t a factor here – securing agreement remains a matter of political will.

"Having spoken to the two governments the SDLP is however encouraged that some progress has been made – political leaders now need to be challenged to show some courage and get this across the line. 

"There is too much at stake to allow our institutions to fall – the deadline may have passed but we still need to get the deal done.

We cannot allow Northern politics to fall into a permanent status quo of huge frustration SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

He added: "Today should not be hyped as a collapse of the peace process but there is now a serious threat to any longevity in local people taking local decisions.

"All of us must now reflect between a choice between a politics interested in actually wielding the power of government or a politics paralysed by deadlock and division.   

"That must be the focus of the coming hours and days – that must be the incentive to finally getting the deal done."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said there has been a "breach of trust" between the parties with the failure to meet the deadline.

This Assembly has often been criticised and held in low esteem. We do ourselves no favours when we continue to let deadline after deadline slip Alliance leader Naomi Long

She said it was inexcusable that a row over the "name" of an Irish Language Act was halting progress.

"That is ludicrous after six months of negotiation and debate on the issue," she said.

She said: "Alliance will not walk away from the negotiations but we are clear this a serious development – there has been a breach of trust by the larger parties in not reaching agreement before this deadline. That has tested the public’s patience well beyond breaking point.

"Those parties with the largest mandates need to now also accept the size of their responsibilities and deliver for those who voted for them. Get the deal done, get the Assembly re-established and get the Ministers back into office.

“We are standing on the precipice of crises in health and education, as well as the potential loss of devolution in the long-term. Every hour that slips by deepens that crisis. Alliance sought the authority of our Party Council to compromise and make a good deal to deliver the five-party Executive others claim they wanted to deliver. We lived up to our mandate, now it’s time others followed suit.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said the events were "extremely disappointing" and said it is "now what we wanted and it's not what the people of Northern Ireland wanted"

He said: "Everyone should recognise that if a functioning Executive and Assembly are not in place and we go to direct rule, then they should not expect either to be back in place anytime soon. It is the height of folly to allow any of the participants to hold a veto over the formation of the devolved institutions. Unfortunately these are the direct out-workings of the St Andrews agreement.

“Whilst others may want to create some sort of pantomime in the Assembly this afternoon, I would urge everyone that cool heads are needed instead. To that end I have asked the Head of the Civil Service to call an immediate meeting of Party Leaders this afternoon to establish what can be salvaged.

"The Party leaders have not met as a group in a number of days and maybe its time to get to basics.

We need to inject some trust into this process or else we are going to end up farther back than where we started.  If there's a chance that we can make progress, then we should take it. UUP leader Robin Swann

“Our MLAs received a mandate to do their job and do what's right for Northern Ireland and they stand ready and willing to fulfil those duties.”

Earlier Irish Foreign minister Simon Coveney and Secretary of State James Brokenshire made no mention of the 4pm deadline as they addressed the media on Thursday morning.

Instead they indicated that talks will continue and it is up to the party leaders to deliver agreement.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said he believes a "resolution can be found", while Mr Coveney referred to "significant progress" but said that some issues remain unsolved.

Mr Brokenshire said: "Much progress has been made but a number of outstanding issues remain.

"I believe that a resolution can be found and I am urging the parties to continue focusing all their efforts on achieving this.

"The UK Government will work with the parties toward their critical objective of forming an Executive. But I have made clear to party leaders that it is for them to reach the agreement which will pave the way for this. And their focus must be on this.

"All efforts of both the UK Government and the Irish Government continue to be directed towards supporting the parties on this issue, to provide for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

"That prize is achievable and remains my firm priority."

Mr Coveney said: "After the last three days of intensive negotiation, I am encouraged that there continues to be real engagement between the parties.

"Significant progress has been made - although there are still gaps to be bridged on a number of key issues.

"Like the Secretary of State, I believe that an agreement is still within reach - an agreement that would allow a power-sharing Executive to be formed on a sustainable basis.

"We continue to remain focused on reaching that agreement and so talks are continuing. It is the successful outcome of this process that matters."

BACKGROUND:

The institutions imploded in January when DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced from office after Sinn Fein's then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, quit in protest at the DUP's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - a scheme that left the administration facing a £490 million overspend.

His move triggered a snap Assembly election in March.

A number of attempts to restore powersharing between the five main parties following that poll floundered, with three UK Government deadlines for a deal having already been missed.

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