The powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland is likely to extend throughout the year and potentially beyond, a senior Democratic Unionist has said.
Simon Hamilton said he did not think an agreement between his party and Sinn Fein to restore devolution would materialise in 2018.
“I think the prospects of a return to devolution in the short-term are bleak,” he told MPs at Westminster.
Mr Hamilton added: “It gives me no pleasure to say that I don’t think that is going to happen in the short-term.
“I don’t see it happening this year and perhaps even beyond.”
Mr Hamilton, who was briefing members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the long-running powersharing crisis, blamed Sinn Fein’s “scorched earth” policy for poisoning relations between the parties.
The DUP continues to reject Sinn Fein claims it had struck a draft agreement last month before reneging in the face of a grassroots backlash from party supporters angry that potential concessions on the vexed issue of the Irish language were in the offing.
Mr Hamilton said media reports suggesting that a draft deal had been done, with claims DUP leader Arlene Foster had handed over a hard copy to Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, were the result of “mischief making” and “selective leaking” by the republican party.
The Strangford Assembly member has been a key member of the DUP’s negotiating team through the various rounds of ill-fated negotiations during the 14-month impasse.
He defended the leadership of Mrs Foster and said she had headed up the negotiations at all stages of the process.
Mr Hamilton claimed reasons preventing the restoration of devolved government included Sinn Fein “intransigence” and the party’s continued “eulogising” of the IRA.
“Their behaviour in recent days and their behaviour in recent weeks suggest to me that they are not serious about getting devolution back,” he said.
The powersharing institutions first imploded last January amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
The dispute subsequently widened to take in more long-standing disputes over the Irish language; social issues like the region’s ban on same sex marriage; the treatment of members of the Armed Forces; and mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.
The DUP has called for a return to Westminster direct rule to stabilise the region’s rudderless public services amid the continued absence of a Stormont executive.
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said Mr Hamilton’s remarks showed the DUP had “checked out” of powersharing.
He said the only option was for the UK and Irish governments to chart the way ahead through the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference – a peace process structure that gives the Dublin administration a consultative role on certain Northern Ireland issues.
“If these comments reflect the position of the DUP leadership, then clearly that party has checked out of the powersharing institutions or any renewed effort to restore them,” Mr Murphy said.
“This follows their decision to renege on the draft agreement and to crash the talks process in the face of opposition from their own most right-wing, anti-agreement elements.
“But our public services and the rights of citizens cannot be held to ransom by the DUP’s refusal to close on an agreement which they negotiated over 14 months.
“So in that context, there is a renewed onus on the two governments to urgently convene the British-Irish intergovernmental conference to implement previous agreements and pave the way for a restoration of the Executive by addressing the British government commitment to an Irish Language Act, the release of funds for legacy inquests, progressing the legacy mechanisms and safeguarding the rights of citizens including the right to marriage equality.”