Stormont's rowing politicians given ultimatum if no powersharing deal agreed
The UK Government has warned Stormont's rowing politicians they will face a snap election or a form of direct rule if they cannot restore powersharing by early May.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire issued the ultimatum as a second talks deadline suffered the same fate as the first and fell by the wayside.
Mr Brokenshire has been forced to scrap his Good Friday deadline for a deal and has stretched the negotiation process by a further few weeks in a bid to achieve a breakthrough.
"I believe that the outstanding issues between the parties are surmountable, but if no executive is formed by early May, I will need to take further steps to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs," he said.
"This is likely to mean, however undesirable, either a second election or a return to decision making from Westminster."
Northern Ireland has been without a governing executive for six weeks following March's snap Assembly election.
The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, the two parties whose agreement is essential for a new administration to be formed, are at loggerheads over a range of issues, each blaming the other for the impasse.
Negotiations failed to produce a result before the first deadline - which fell three weeks after the March 2 poll - and now a second deadline will also be missed after round table discussions were adjourned on Wednesday for the Easter break.
The talks also involve the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance Party and the UK and Irish governments.
Devolution first crashed in January over a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The subsequent election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein, including legal protections for Irish language speakers and the region's ongoing ban on same-sex marriage.
Sinn Fein is also at odds with the UK government on stalled mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.
Party president Gerry Adams reiterated his view that progress could only be made if the DUP signed up to "rights-based" institutions.
"Sinn Fein are quite relaxed about talks continuing for a short while but there has to be progress," said Mr Adams.
"This can't go on indefinitely. If you want a crystallisation about where this impasse is, it is about rights."
He added: "These are modest but important matters. Those in place - the institutions will flourish. Those not in place - the institutions will not be back."
DUP leader Arlene Foster said she wanted to get into government as quickly as possible.
The former first minister, who once vowed that an Irish Language Act would never happen on her watch, also said she intended to meet Gaelic speaking groups to discuss their concerns.
"We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and to that end over the next short period of time I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don't want to use it as a political weapon," she said.
With talks destined to break down on Friday without a deal, extending the deadline has avoided any unfavourable comparisons with the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
The last election brought an end to Stormont's unionist majority and the DUP's lead over Sinn Fein was cut from 10 seats to one.
Mr Brokenshire confirmed he would commence legislative steps at Westminster to stabilise the finances of the rudderless government, passing a law to enable the circulation of rates bills that pay for local council services.
He said he would also amend legislation to allow an executive to be formed in early May if a deal materialises.
If no consensus is reached, he said the Government would either call another snap election or take control of devolved decision making.
Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan said an agreement was not only desirable but achievable.
"All parties have made clear that they want to see the devolved powersharing institutions up and running," he said.
"That is also the firm objective of both governments and it is clearly the outcome that serves the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was "furious and frustrated" another deadline had been missed.
"It is up to us as politicians, as the people elected by the public, to get this job done," he said.
"No matter how long it takes we need to get our act together."
He accused other parties of letting their unelected special advisers have too prominent a role in the negotiations.
Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott said he feared there were people in the talks process "going through the motions".
"Our agenda is to get these institutions up and running. Others don't have the same agenda," said the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP.
Mr Elliott added that if direct rule is implemented "it will be a long time before these institutions are back up and running".
"That's not to the benefit of Northern Ireland," he warned.