The Government has moved to again delay the legal requirement to call an Assembly election in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley is seeking to push back the end of August deadline amid the ongoing impasse between the region’s rowing parties.
The latest talks process, which was established in the wake of the dissident republican murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in April, appears to have lost momentum, with negotiations showing no sign of delivering a breakthrough to re-establish devolution.
The process involving the UK and Irish governments and the five main Stormont parties is the latest in a series of as yet unsuccessful bids to resurrect institutions that crashed more than two and a half years ago.
With the politically sensitive summer marching season approaching its height, a time period not considering conducive for striking compromises, the prospects of consensus emerging in the coming weeks appear slim.
Over the last two months, there has been little evidence of any movement on key logjams preventing a return of Stormont, such as Irish language protections and the ban on same sex marriage.
Mrs Bradley is tabling legislation at Westminster to extend the deadline by which she will have a legal duty to call an election.
It is set to be debated in the Commons next week.
An onus to call an election had been on the Northern Ireland Secretary since the collapse of powersharing, but last year she move to temporarily remove the provision, to provide space for the parties to reach consensus.
She had already extended what was a March deadline to the end of August.
She is now seeking to move it further back until to October 21, with the option a further extension to January 13.
I continue to believe a deal is achievable in the weeks aheadKaren Bradley
Mrs Bradley said the move was a “sensible contingency plan”.
“The restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks is my number one priority,” she said.
“I continue to believe a deal is achievable in the weeks ahead and I will do everything I can to make that happen. At the same time it is my responsibility to plan for all scenarios and to ensure there are effective contingency measures in place.
“This Bill is necessary to ensure good governance and the continuation of public services in the event that the parties cannot come to an agreement before 25 August. We should all encourage the parties to ensure it is not needed by restoring the Executive in the coming weeks.”
It is understood a group of cross-party MPs are considering proposing an amendment to Mrs Bradley’s Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 that would compel the UK government to legislate for same sex marriage in the region.
That move could be frustrated however if the Government attempts to fast-track the bill through the Commons without amendments.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
On Wednesday, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy claimed the pace of talks has gone into “go-slow” mode ahead of the annual July 12 parades across Northern Ireland celebrated by unionists and loyalists.
But DUP MP Gavin Robinson hit back, accusing Sinn Fein of “making excuses” and of a “lack of engagement” in the talks.
On Thursday, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he has been “working intensively” with Ms Bradley to support the political parties in finding an agreement that will get all of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement up and running again.
“We have today seen the introduction by the British Government of an amendment to UK legislation to extend the period for calling an Assembly election,” he said.
“This step underlines the seriousness of the absence of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, and the urgent requirement for an agreement between the political parties on operating the institutions again.
The governments will have to make an assessment before long on whether it is possible to move quickly in this period to final agreementSimon Coveney
“The two largest parties have a particular responsibility to reach an accommodation to secure the formation of a new power-sharing Executive.
“The two governments have called on the parties to continue to participate in this dialogue with each other towards a sustainable accommodation for all, and we will continue to engage with all the parties in discussions on the outstanding issues.
“The governments will have to make an assessment before long on whether it is possible to move quickly in this period to final agreement.
“The government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions.”