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Enda Kenny urges Sinn Fein and DUP to find a last minute solution

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has urged Sinn Féin and the DUP "against letting the progress made since 1998 unravel" as Stormont remains on the brink.

“The situation we now face in Northern Ireland is very serious. The best future for Northern Ireland remains in the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, respecting its principles and operating its institutions effectively," he said.

"A limited window for dialogue remains and I am encouraging the parties to engage together to find a way forward that delivers on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions.”

Mr Kenny said he has had numerous conversations with Prime Minister Theresa May and he has also met with Gerry Adams and Mary Lou MacDonald at lunchtime, and subsequently had phone calls with Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster.

"Acknowledging the long and difficult personal journeys that many had travelled, he cautioned against letting the progress made since 1998 unravel," a spokesperson for the Taoiseach said in a statement.

"He made clear that he would maintain close contact with Prime Minister May, and that they had agreed that the two Governments would support the parties in efforts to resolve the current difficulties."

Irish minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire will meet in Belfast tomorrow.

Mr Kenny's statements come as a snap election seemed all but inevitable after Sinn Fein ruled out substantive negotiations to save the sinking powersharing administration.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire met politicians in Belfast in a last-ditch bid to avert a poll, but if the republican party maintains its stance then it is a certainty.

If Sinn Fein refuses to replace Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister by Monday then Mr Brokenshire is legally obliged to call an election, potentially for late February or early March.

Earlier on Wednesday there had been confusion on whether Sinn Fein would enter negotiations with their long-time partners in government, the Democratic Unionists, before next week.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill first said the party was "not interested" but party president Gerry Adams then said he was "always open for talks".

Later Ms O'Neill clarified the party position: "Sinn Fein is always open to talks. We are the party of dialogue."

But she added: "I see no basis for credible negotiations this side of the election."

DUP leader Arlene Foster has indicated she would be open to talks with Sinn Fein.

For his part, Mr Brokenshire said an election was a "high probability" but he pledged to keep striving for a resolution until all hope of a pre-poll deal was gone.

"My focus is on the here and now, on what can be achieved now, on what opportunities there are, what the potential may be to bring people together, rather than see people be driven further apart," he said.

The Secretary of State warned that finding agreement would be harder on the other side of a divisive election.

The latest twists in a week of high drama at Stormont came as Theresa May made clear in the Commons that events in Belfast would not derail the Government's timetable for leaving the European Union.

The Prime Minister rejected a challenge from Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson to postpone the start of EU withdrawal talks under Article 50 because, he argued, Northern Ireland would be left without a voice in the process.

The collapse of the institutions was triggered by the resignation of Mr McGuinness on Monday.

The Sinn Fein veteran's move, in protest at the DUP's handling of a botched renewable energy scheme, forced Mrs Foster from her post as first minister.

The region faces the prospect of direct rule from Westminster being reintroduced if the fallout between the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot be resolved on the other side of an election.

While the looming collapse of power-sharing was triggered by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) affair - a scandal that has left Stormont with a £490 million bill - other disputes between the two main parties have been reignited by the furore.

But Sinn Fein has already started planning to face the electorate and is holding a selection convention on Sunday.

Mrs Foster has announced plans for a public inquiry into the RHI affair while her party colleague, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, has sent proposed measures to slash the £490 million bill to Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleor for consideration.

Sinn Fein has been sceptical of both DUP initiatives.

It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the Renewable Heat Incentive, but the costs spiralled well beyond London's financial commitment.

The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £1 billion over the next 20 years.

The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

Irish Independent

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