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Brokenshire: Parties have 'few short weeks' to strike Stormont deal

Parties in Northern Ireland have a "short few weeks" to strike a deal to save powersharing at Stormont, Secretary of State James Brokenshire has said.

With a deadline for forming a new ruling executive following this month's snap election having elapsed on Monday without agreement, the UK government now either has to call yet another poll or potentially reintroduce direct rule from Westminster.

Mr Brokenshire indicated he will delay taking action to allow the region's political leaders some more time to resolve their differences.

Without an executive or agreed budget for the upcoming financial year, control of Stormont's finances will be handed to a senior civil servant on Wednesday, albeit subject to tight spending constraints.

Mr Brokenshire said that was "not sustainable", making clear the final window for negotiations would not be allowed to drift.

"I think there are a short few weeks in order to resolve matters," he said.

"The reason I say that is because of the stark issue in relation to public services here in Northern Ireland and the lack of a budget having been set, and therefore it is the impact on public services on having an extended period that is very much at the forefront of my mind in terms of the responsibilities that we have as the UK Government to provide that assurance to the public here."

The Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein administration collapsed in January amid a bitter row over a botched green energy scheme. The subsequent snap election campaign laid bare a range of other contentious issues dividing the parties.

The Secretary of State rejected criticism of the Government's handling of the talks to form a new executive and defended the fact Prime Minister Theresa May did not participate in the process. He said the Government had played a "positive and active" role and Mrs May had been kept updated throughout.

He declined to be drawn on calls for an independent mediator to be appointed to inject fresh impetus to negotiations that some politicians have described as a "shambles" to date.

Under current legislation, the Government is required to call another snap election if a deadline for forming an executive passes.

However, there is some room for manoeuvre, as there is no obligation to set a poll date immediately, rather within a "reasonable period".

Making a public statement at Stormont House, Belfast, after the 4pm deadline passed on Monday, Mr Brokenshire said there was "no appetite" for an immediate election.

The Government could also theoretically go for the nuclear option of reintroducing direct rule, but that move - which would require emergency legislation - looks unlikely at this stage at least.

Mr Brokenshire said there was "an overwhelming desire" among politicians and the public for "strong and stable devolved government".

"We now have a short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues and for an executive to be formed," he said.

"Everyone owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to grasp that and provide the political leadership and stability that they want."

Mr Brokenshire said he would make a full statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday setting out a way forward for the region.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said the context of Brexit made it all the more imperative that a new executive was formed as soon as possible.

"The absence of agreement on the establishment of an executive is, for many reasons, deeply regrettable," he said.

"However, it is particularly concerning that a vacuum in devolved government in Northern Ireland should now be occurring just as the island of Ireland faces up to the many serious challenges represented by the UK exit from the EU.

"In these circumstances, all concerned must redouble efforts to achieve the re-establishment of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, which is so plainly in the interests of all its citizens.

"The Irish Government will continue to advocate very strongly for Northern Ireland's interests to be protected.

"However, there is no substitute for an executive speaking with one voice on these critical issues."

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists have blamed each other for the breakdown of the powersharing talks on Sunday night.

DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed Sinn Fein's "inflexible" approach to negotiations was to blame.

She said she did not believe another election would solve anything.

"We wonder whether Sinn Fein were serious about reaching agreement at this time," said the former first minister.

"We are just disappointed that Sinn Fein did not come to the talks in the same spirit as we came to the talks."

She added: "The government of Northern Ireland is not a game, it is actually very serious and the fact we do not have an executive being formed today is very regrettable."

Amid the trading of recriminations, Mrs O'Neill offered a very different view on culpability.

She claimed the DUP had failed to live up to previous agreements and were standing in the way of progressive policies.

"We are standing firm - previous agreements need to be implemented," she said.

"We came at the negotiations with the right attitude, wanting to make the institutions work, wanting to deliver for all citizens.

"Unfortunately, the DUP maintained their position in relation to blocking equality, delivery of equality for citizens, that was the problem."

Talks collapsed after Sinn Fein announced it would not be nominating a deputy first minister in the Assembly before the deadline. Without both first and deputy first ministers, it is impossible to form an executive.

Sinn Fein has said it will not share power with Mrs Foster as first minister until a public inquiry into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) is concluded.

Republicans have also been seeking movement on issues such as legislation to protect the Irish language, a hugely symbolic measure but deeply problematic for some unionists.

New mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles also remain a source of vexed dispute.

During the ill-fated negotiations, it is understood the DUP sought progress on implementing the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland, a framework that defines the state's obligations to serving and former members of the Armed Forces, as part of potential new legislation that would also offer more protections for both Irish and Ulster Scots speakers.

A voting surge by Sinn Fein in the snap Assembly election earlier this month saw the party come within one seat of becoming the biggest party at Stormont behind the DUP.

Mr Brokenshire claimed the talks had made progress on some issues - namely around the proposed budget and programme for government; moves to improve governmental transparency and accountability; and steps to implement stalled legacy mechanisms.

He said there was also moves on how Northern Ireland's interests could be best represented in Brexit negotiations.

However, he said "significant gaps" between the parties on "culture and identity" issues mean an overall deal had proved elusive.

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