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Dublin fears UK General Election could sink Stormont deal hopes

By Noel McAdam

The Irish Government has voiced concern that the June 8 general election will damage the chances of renewed Stormont talks reaching agreement to restore devolution.

Following Theresa May's announcement yesterday, Dublin Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan revealed he had had a phone conversation with Secretary of State James Brokenshire outlining his fears.

"I am conscious of the political reality that all of the parties involved in the talks will now be competing in a general election and mindsets will inevitably shift to campaign mode," Mr Flanagan said afterwards.

The chances of compromise -already reckoned to be low - are not increased by the prospect of parties having to face the electorate soon afterwards.

Mr Brokenshire has already said he will move towards direct rule or another Assembly election if there is no deal by early May, prompting some to speculate a Stormont poll could be held on the same day as the Westminster poll.

He reiterated yesterday: "Discussions between the parties, and the UK and Irish Governments, will continue in accordance with the three-stranded approach. The prospect of a forthcoming UK general election does not change this approach."

And with Parliament due to be dissolved on May 3, the Secretary of State is asking for measures to set the regional rate and assist with a budget for Northern Ireland departments to be fast-tracked through the Commons.

"In addition, I believe it is also right to introduce provisions that would enable an Executive to be formed in early May should agreement be reached," he added.

Parties last night privately signalled their willingness to continue the negotiations - due to resume next Monday - but admitted the likelihood of agreement has diminished even further.

Mr Flanagan, who is due back in Belfast tomorrow for meetings with the parties, said: "The Secretary of State told me that his intention, announced last week, remains unchanged - namely to bring forward legislation at Westminster in the coming days which will include a provision to allow a Northern Ireland Executive to be formed in early May."

Dublin, he said, remained committed to "ensuring the best possible outcome for Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations".

He said it remained his firm hope that the talks process can continue and conclude successfully in the coming days.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said it would be "disgraceful" for any party to use the impending general election to hamper or pull out of the talks, but admitted the chances of a deal were now more remote.

"Alliance will be contesting this election on a platform of providing good government and opposing a hard Brexit, while seeking a special deal to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland," she said.

"This election coincides with a critical time in our local politics. The current vacuum is not sustainable, it is already doing massive damage to our economy and our public services.

"It would be disgraceful for any party to use this election and the hope of short-term electoral gain to stall or withdraw from the current talks process."

Some were speculating yesterday that another Assembly poll could be held on the same day, June 8. If no deal is reached in the negotiations which resume next week, Mr Brokenshire could announce another election simultaneous with the national vote.

But it also appeared the unexpected announcement of an election could effectively knock the Stormont talks on the head.

A reheated negotiation period is due to get under way with a round table meeting involving all five parties - the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance - next Monday.

But it is possible the parties' focus may drift from the talks table to the seven-week general election campaign.

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