Impasse could scupper visit of Clintons, Mitchell, Blair and Ahern to mark 20 years of peace
An historic conference of former world leaders to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement could be at risk thanks to the collapse of the Stormont talks.
Former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, along with Tony Blair, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and US talks chairman George Mitchell have been invited to the event in Belfast on April 10 - two decades after the accord brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Every key figure from the groundbreaking talks, including the leaders of the local parties that took part, is expected to be there - except for SDLP founder John Hume, who is unwell.
However, the current political impasse is threatening to overshadow the occasion, with the Clintons' attendance understood to be on condition of a Stormont Executive being up and running.
The conference, organised by the Senator George J Mitchell Institute For Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University, will form a central part of anniversary events.
Mr Clinton and Mr Mitchell are expected to receive the Freedom of Belfast, while Mrs Clinton will be given an honorary doctorate.
An SDLP source told the Sunday Times that plans for the conference had put pressure on Sinn Fein during the recent negotiations, as the party was keen for the Clintons to endorse new leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill.
However, Sinn Fein denied this, saying: "The only motivation for getting the political institutions re-established is the delivery of rights and entitlements which are enjoyed by people across these island, rights that continue to be denied by the DUP and British Government to citizens in the north."
Party president Ms McDonald and her number two Mrs O'Neill will meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney in Dublin today to discuss the DUP's decision to collapse the talks.
They will travel to London later in the week to meet Prime Minister Theresa May.
Ms McDonald said: "The decision by the DUP to walk away from a draft deal and collapse the talks process cannot be allowed to further impede the rights of citizens and the implementation of existing agreements.
"Language rights, marriage equality and access to inquests are rights available to everybody else on this island and in Britain. They are not republican issues. They are people issues. These rights are for the whole of society.
"Michelle and I will be telling the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister it is the responsibility of the two Governments to implement the agreements on legacy and an Irish Language Act and to provide for marriage equality.
"We will also make it clear to both Governments that a return to direct rule from London is not an option.
"Sinn Fein remains committed to working for an agreement. However, any return to talks must be progressive and ultimately they must deliver for citizens."
Ms McDonald's comments came after a last-ditch appeal to the DUP to reconsider its position.
She said: "Our appeal to the DUP is fairly straightforward. We had a draft agreement. We have a draft agreement.
"Come back and talk to us and get that over the line. But I would also say to the DUP, if that's not a runner, and I suspect at this moment it is not, we are not standing still. The show must go on and we have to move forward."
Talks between the two main parties were understood to be at a critical stage when Arlene Foster pulled the plug last Wednesday and called on the UK Government to set a budget and start making policy decisions for Northern Ireland. The DUP leader later denied any draft agreement had been reached.
News of today's meetings came as Mr Coveney said Sinn Fein and the DUP would have a week to "cool off" before London and Dublin step in again to kick-start talks between the two.
The Tanaiste said there were still hopes for more formal discussions before the end of the month, after unofficial conversations in the coming days.
He added: "I think we do have a basis for compromise and agreement on every issue, but the politics around some of those issues in terms of how they're sold and explained is something we need to be sensitive towards."
Former Irish Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte said giving up on devolution would be "regrettable" at a time when "the North is facing its biggest peacetime challenge as Britain struggles to withdraw from the EU".
He went on to level criticism at both the DUP and Sinn Fein, accusing unionist leaders of forsaking hard-won devolution for "short-term influence at Westminster" and Sinn Fein for allowing complaints about a "petty" DUP decision to deny a grant to an Irish language organisation to morph into demands for a standalone act and "mischief making".
He added: "If partnership government can't be put together again, it could threaten the Good Friday Agreement itself.
"It was designed for inclusivity, in the expectancy that the pivotal parties would be the UUP and the SDLP.
"Instead, the DUP and Sinn Fein have dominated, with both parties content to govern for their own tribe."