Executive must be restored 'for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard on Brexit'
Northern Ireland needs to re-establish its Executive so it can have a voice in Brexit talks, a Government minister has told British and Irish politicians.
Speaking at a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly plenary in Liverpool on Monday, Northern Ireland minister Chloe Smith said time to restore the devolved government was running out.
Ms Smith spoke at the meeting in place of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire, who was in Belfast for talks.
She said: " In order to make real progress with prosperity in Northern Ireland we need a functioning, effective devolved government.
"A devolved government that can contribute to the important discussions about how the UK will leave the EU, alongside the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales."
She said it was down to the country's two largest parties to come together and make the agreement.
She added: " The issues that remain to be resolved between the parties are small in number but no-one should underestimate how difficult this gap is for the parties to bridge.
"The Government remains steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast agreement and to governing in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.
"As the Secretary of State has made clear, the window for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland is closing. We are reaching a critical time.
"If an agreement is not reached soon, the Secretary of State will need to consider carefully the next steps available to him.
"It would be with great regret and reluctance that increased political decision making from Westminster would become a reality but if a deal is not reached imminently that greater involvement, beginning with Westminster legislation to set a 17/18 budget for Northern Ireland, risks becoming inevitable"
The assembly, made up of elected members from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, also heard from Brexit minister Robin Walker who pledged that leaving the European Union would not mean a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Mr Walker said: "We place a huge value on the relationship between Ireland and the UK and the issues unique to Ireland and Northern Ireland will always be at the forefront of the negotiations."
Senator Frank Feighan suggested the Northern Ireland border would be the "Achilles heel" in Brexit negotiations.
Mr Walker said: "I think that is unnecessarily pessimistic. I think we can achieve, through agreement, taking the approach that we set out - that we want to reach a new customs arrangement between the UK and the EU and that we want to absolutely make sure that unique relationship with regard to rights, with regard to travel area, is protected through the withdrawal agreement - we can avoid a return to hard borders."
Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the situation with her Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar.
Downing Street said they had a "shared concern over the lack of devolved Government in Northern Ireland for over nine months".
"Both leaders noted that while progress has been made over the past few weeks significant gaps still remained, including on Irish language, and it was up to the two main parties to overcome differences and reach agreement," a Number 10 spokeswoman said.
"The Prime Minister said she was absolutely clear that it was in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland to see a fully functioning executive up and running so that local decisions could be made by local politicians."