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£1bn gamble: No prospect of Stormont deal as civil servants to get greater control

Brokenshire's optimism not reflected at Stormont where relations are 'very poor'

By Suzanne Breen

A deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont won't happen this week as civil servants prepare to take even greater control of Northern Ireland.

Despite the government's insistence that the talks are still alive, sources from across the political spectrum have ruled out any prospect of an imminent agreement.

They said that the DUP and Sinn Fein remain "poles apart" and described the political chemistry between the two parties as "very poor".

Read more: Arlene Foster: Sinn Fein should not hold devolution to ransom for narrow gain on Irish language

The Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, yesterday told the House of Commons that a deal between the parties was achievable. He said he was prepared to bring forward legislation to allow an Executive to be formed this week.

However, sources across the parties described Mr Brokenshire's optimism as "not reflecting the reality on the ground at Stormont".

Mr Brokenshire warned he will legislate to give civil servants in Northern Ireland greater authority to spend money if a devolved government isn't formed.

But he added that critical point hadn't been reached.

Read more: Suzanne Breen: Little chance of compromise between such bitter political enemies

Westminster could move in and set a budget for Northern Ireland which would trigger the release of all block grant funds of £10 billion.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was vital that an agreement was reached at Stormont.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, she warned that without a deal, Northern Ireland was facing "another election or the inevitable introduction of direct rule".

She said: "The challenge for Sinn Fein over the next few days is whether they will act in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland rather than maintain that narrow focus.

"I want to get the Executive restored immediately so local ministers can implement key reforms in health and education, as well as meet the needs of our community sector by giving them some budget certainty.

"Sinn Fein should stop holding devolution to ransom for narrow political advantage with the Irish language."

Acknowledging that an Irish Language Act was the main stumbling block in the talks, Mrs Foster said that her party recognised the language's importance to many people.

"It is a valuable part of our society and it deserves to be respected and supported by government," she said.

"The claims by Sinn Fein that the DUP does not support rights for those who speak Irish are simply wrong, but we are conscious too of the other cultures and traditions that deserve respect and support also."

However, Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill blamed the DUP for holding up progress and she claimed that Mr Brokenshire's statement hadn't moved the situation on.

"He is once again pandering to the DUP's delaying and blocking of the rights-based issues which are the heart of the current difficulties," she said.

"He has also quite crassly let the DUP off the hook on the issue of the dark money donation of over £400,000 which bought its support for Brexit.

"This latest evidence of a Tory side deal with the DUP comes on the heels of the DUP's support for cuts to the wages of emergency and public sector workers, and support for a Tory Brexit."

UUP leader Robin Swann said that the public would be "outraged" at the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to reach a deal.

"This cannot go on forever. There is too much at stake," he said. "As for those who pontificate about respect, where is the respect for the people waiting for hospital appointments? Where is the respect for the victims of historical institutional abuse?

"Ideology should not be allowed to trump the rights of the most vulnerable in our society."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that Mr Brokenshire's "vague words" at Westminster shouldn't fool anybody - he was setting out a path to return to direct rule.

"That will mean the North is at the mercy of a DUP/Tory coalition who haven't the slightest interest in either equality or fairness," he said.

Stephen Farry of Alliance accused Mr Brokenshire of not addressing the Stormont deadlock.

"The DUP and Sinn Fein (are) increasingly engaging in public recrimination. The issues between those parties may be few in number, but the divisions and mistrust between them is deep," he said.

Mr Farry urged Mr Brokenshire to be pro-active "acting now" rather than leaving it to later to confirm budgets, adding: "Every day that goes by carries significant opportunity costs."

Irish Foreign Minister Simon claimed that the next 24 hours were vital if progress was to be made this summer. "The key issues to be resolved will be no easier in the autumn than they are now. Indeed, with the passage of time, they may become more intractable as the hiatus in governance increasingly impacts on the welfare of citizens," he added.

Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith suggested that Prime Minister Theresa May become more involved in talks.

Referring to the DUP leader's recent RAF flight, he quipped that if she wanted to get on a plane, "I'm sure Arlene Foster wouldn't mind lending her hers for the weekend".

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