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Watch: Brokenshire says Stormont deal 'remains achievable' this week

Sinn Fein accuses him of 'pandering' to DUP

By Michael Shiels McNamee

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has said that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein may be done as early as this week.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Brokenshire acknowledged that he was "under a duty to set a new date for a new election", but gave politicians more time to clinch a deal.

The legal deadline for the restoration of the power-sharing institutions passed last Thursday without a deal.

Mr Brokenshire warned he will legislate to give civil servants in Northern Ireland greater authority to spend money in the absence of a devolved government.

He told MPs: "This hiatus cannot continue for much longer.

"There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new Executive to take those strategic decisions in the interest of all."

He added: "If no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland departments through an appropriations bill.

"We have not quite reached that point.

"That point is coming and the lack of a formal budget is not something that can be sustained indefinitely."

I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable. And if agreement is reached, I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed possibly as early as this week. But time is short. James Brokenshire

Mr Brokenshire also made a commitment to bring forward transparency legislation that mean that will require donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland to be published.

This legislation would be enacted from July 2017 and parties would not be required to publish backdated reports.

"One area on which there is much consensus, however, is on the need for greater transparency around political donations," he said in his speech.

"In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative Party’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the General Election I can confirm that I intend to bring forward legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after 1 July 2017."

Politicians from across the political divide have said that an eleventh hour agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP is now highly unlikely.

Statements have been made in the past few hours by representatives from both parties.

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy has said that there is no chance of a deal in the short term, while the DUP's Arele Foster has said Sinn Fein has a "shopping list that seems to get longer".

Unionist sources believe Secretary of State James Brokenshire will suspend the talks for the rest of the month to allow politicians to take their holidays and for the Twelfth of July celebrations to pass.

Party reactions

In the Commons, DUP MP Ian Paisley said he was committed to devolution, adding: "But at some point there's got to be a realisation that the path could possibly be dead, that it has deceased of life, it is no more.

"If that is the case about devolution, can he put a time frame, can the Secretary of State put a time frame, on the life expectancy that is ultimately left in this dead bird - will appropriations be moved before the summer recess?"

In reply, Mr Brokenshire said the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland had indicated that "we are not at that point yet".

He added: "I think that we are still a little way away from that, but nonetheless I think there are urgent issues that do need to be addressed in terms of the financial position in Northern Ireland, why I made the points I did in my statement around the potential need for further assurance to be granted.

"I would say that I think there is still very firmly life there. I think that the engagement that we continue to see underlines that, and profoundly that is what is in Northern Ireland's best interests, to have locally-elected politicians serving the community in Northern Ireland."

Fellow DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party was ready to form an executive and appoint ministers, while Sammy Wilson accused Sinn Fein of demanding unreasonable pre-conditions before forming an executive.

Mr Wilson added: "Will (Mr Brokenshire) confirm that those conditions amount to blackmail and that the establishment of any executive on that basis will be fragile and could not possibly exist?"

Commenting shortly after Mr Brokenshire's speech in the House of Commons, Sinn Féin's Michelle O’Neill MLA said his remarks were "most unhelpful" and "further evidence of the Tory government pandering to the DUP".

The leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland said: “James Brokenshire comments today were most unhelpful".

 

She continued: “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."

Ms O'Neill also accused Mr Brokenshire of "quite crassly" letting the DUP "off the hook on the issue of the dark money donation of over £400,000" which, she claimed "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," Ms O'Neill concluded.

UUP leader Robin Swann responded by saying that Mr Brokenshire's comments had left things "very unclear" and that "these talks now seem to be a two-party process".

He added: "[We have] waiting lists that are now spiralling out of control, headmasters who don’t know what their budgets are for September, additional monies that have been allocated that this executive isn’t able to spend, and that’s the disparity and the frustration that is being felt by the Northern Ireland public out there."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood claimed that the Secretary of State had made "a statement setting out a path to Direct Rule".

"No deal means that in the near future he will be making decisions there," Eastwood said.

"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. 

"A budget delivered by this coalition will struggle to gain any consensus or confidence as we face into mounting crises in health, education and the oncoming challenge of Brexit.

"We have arrived at today’s position because of the failure of both the DUP and Sinn Fein."

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said Mr Brokenshire's statement was "distinctly underwhelming".

"This is a disappointing statement from the Secretary of State," he said.

"It has missed the opportunity to be much more robust in pushing for agreement and maintaining the integrity of deadlines.

"The statement doesn't address the fundamental reality that the talks in their current format seem to be at an impasse, with the DUP and Sinn Fein increasingly engaging in public recrimination.

"The issues between those parties may be few in number, but the divisions and mistrust between them is deep. And on those key issues, the parties have backed themselves into a dead end.

"The opportunity to impose a meaningful deadline, to use incentives or disincentives to move, or to consider a different dynamic has not been taken."

Read more:

Stormont crisis: Direct rule now looking unlikely as talks set to be put on ice 

Stormont crisis: Blundering minister Coveney must take step back and look at bigger picture

UUP's Lord Trimble calls on Brokenshire to hand power to Northern Ireland Assembly

Watch: No urgency from DUP and agreement unlikely in short term, says Sinn Fein

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