Belfast Telegraph

Time's running out for Northern Ireland parties to seal a deal, warns Brokenshire

Secretary of State says he will have to set budget if the stalemate continues

By Suzanne Breen

The Secretary of State has warned the parties that the "window of opportunity" to reach a deal to save Stormont is closing as the prospect of direct rule looms closer.

James Brokenshire yesterday set another unofficial deadline for agreement of next month - but sources across the political divide united in predicting it was extremely unlikely to be met.

Mr Brokenshire said he could be forced to legislate for a Stormont budget in October if the deadlock wasn't broken.

Bilateral discussions will continue this, week with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Conveney set to meet the parties today.

Multi-party talks are scheduled for next week, but the prospects for progress remain bleak.

Mr Brokenshire warned he could be forced to pass a budget at Westminster as public services suffer.

He said: "The window of opportunity to restore devolution and to form an Executive is closing rapidly as we move further into the autumn.

"With pressures on public services already evident, most particularly in the health service, the need for intervention is becoming increasingly clear.

"The UK Government has a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to provide political stability and certainty.

"If this political impasse continues I will be forced to legislate in Westminster for a budget for Northern Ireland and consider next steps. I don't want to have to take this action."

Mr Brokenshire said he could not "ignore the growing concern in the wider community here about the impact that the current political impasse is having on the local economy and on the delivery of key public services".

He added: "All party leaders have made clear they agree that there is a need for an Executive to be formed to make key decisions for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.

"Now is the time to give effect to this desire through political leadership on all sides."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said there was no need for lengthy negotiations.

"I am not going to be prescriptive, but we do not believe that there can be a prolonged set of talks," she said.

"We think we should be able to come to a determination pretty quickly whether Sinn Fein want to go back into government.

"Certainly for our part we do. We have no red lines - we have no barriers."

She added that "Sinn Fein are the barrier and will continue to be the barrier".

Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill insisted that a deal could be done in days if the right attitude prevailed.

"There is a short window in front of us where we need to find solutions and a way forward," said Ms O'Neill, who is set to deliver a keynote address on the current talks tomorrow morning.

"We need a short, sharp and focused negotiation in the small time frame we have ahead of us."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry insisted direct rule was not inevitable and suggested an independent mediator be appointed to give impetus to the talks.

"We see a situation where the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot talk directly to one another," he said.

"They're engaged in megaphone diplomacy. A mediator could play a constructive role and try and get both them and other parties to understand the reasons why devolution collapsed, why there is an ongoing impasse and how a common way forward can be found."

However, TUV leader Jim Allister said that Mr Brokenshire had already "delayed long enough" and had a duty to provide government for Northern Ireland.

"Waiting for Stormont to work is utter folly," he said. "It is unfixable in its present form.

"Protracting the agony, rather than putting it out of its misery, is serving no-one's interests other than those like Sinn Fein who relish instability. Northern Ireland needs government.

"Stormont patently cannot provide it and therefore we need to move to direct rule."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood maintained that a deal was still "doable".

His party will this week publish its positions on the talks and he urged others to do likewise.

"The politics of shifting goal posts, hiding behind slogans and soundbites can no longer be allowed," he said.

"After months of private talks we are still here, still at stalemate. The public deserves to know why."

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