Sinn Fein suspects any UK-Irish powersharing deal will 'fall short'
The UK and Irish governments are set to present Northern Ireland's parties with their version of a proposed deal to break the powersharing impasse at Stormont, Sinn Fein has predicted.
Party negotiator Conor Murphy warned that any paper tabled by London and Dublin was likely to fall short of what was required to facilitate the return of a devolved government in Belfast.
He also accused both governments of trying to shape the media agenda on the talks process by briefing and spinning falsehoods.
With a week to go before the latest deadline in the powersharing crisis, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists remain at loggerheads over key issues, such as proposed laws to protect Irish language speakers.
The clock is ticking toward October 30, when the UK Government effectively needs to decide whether it has to take a major step toward the re-imposition of direct rule and intervene to set a budget for the region's rudderless public services.
With no sign of a breakthrough imminent, Mr Murphy said he believed the two governments might try to present a framework agreement and urge the Stormont parties to sign up.
"We strongly suspect that the two governments are shaping up to produce a paper for these talks which would fall short of what is required to have sustainable institutions returned, we have told them that privately," he said.
He said if Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire did step in to set a budget that would be a clear sign the negotiations to restore powersharing have failed and "run their course".
Asked if passing a budget would mean a return to direct rule, Mr Murphy insisted direct UK rule was not currently an option under legislation and the UK and Irish Government should instead work on the basis of "co-stewardship" of the region going forward.
But he said Sinn Fein was still working to avert any of that.
"We are not about a failure, we are here this week to try to secure an agreement," said the Newry and Armagh Assembly member.
The current phase of negotiations have essentially been conducted between the DUP and Sinn Fein, with the smaller Stormont parties not involved.
The leader of the SDLP has called on the two larger parties to publish what progress has been made.
Colum Eastwood said the parties should come clean with the public on the negotiations or else offer a "plan B".
"Week after week, we have heard that they have made 'progress' but with no detail and no substance. They need to put their cards on the table," the SDLP leader said.
"The time for negotiating behind the scenes is over. The public deserve to know why they are paying the price for political failure."
Powersharing imploded in January when the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned amid a row over the DUP's handling of a botched renewable heat energy scheme. The falling out subsequently exposed deeper rifts in powersharing.
Four UK Government deadlines have been and gone in the last 10 months.
Mr Eastwood added: "After 10 months with no government, it appears that the only thing set to be delivered by the DUP and Sinn Fein is British direct rule. A prospect that should make all of us very worried and very angry."
The SDLP said the two parties must have the courage to compromise or offer their alternatives to London running all of Northern Ireland's affairs.
"The SDLP is clear, British direct rule must not and cannot be the Plan B," Mr Eastwood said.
Mr Eastwood said if the UK Government passed a Stormont budget it would be "direct rule by any other name".
"If that is what is going to be delivered by this process the two largest parties should hang their heads in shame," he said.
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the DUP and Sinn Fein had been "indulged" too long and claimed those parties were more concerned about their core supporters rather than the good of broader society.
He called for a more inclusive process that involved all the parties in round-table talks.
Mr Farry said there was a "precious week ahead of us".
"If we are to make the best use of the space available to us we believe it's now incumbent that we have change in approach of the talks," he said.
"The format we have had to date has not produced results - it's now time we revert back to the multilateral format that allows for positions to be tested in a more round table manner."