Belfast Telegraph

Stormont crisis: Sinn Fein rule out negotiations as Secretary of State says 'high likelihood' of Northern Ireland election

By Claire Williamson

Sinn Fein have said they will not enter into negotiations and have told the Secretary of State to call an election at the crisis talks aimed at saving Northern Ireland's devolved institutions.

James Brokenshire is meeting political parties at Stormont to discuss a way forward from the impasse which saw Martin McGuinness resign as deputy First minister.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said her government is determined to reach a resolution with the DUP and Stormont before the seven-day deadline when Mr Brokenshire has to consider an election.

During Prime Minister's questions, she told the House of Commons: "I am clear that we want to try to ensure that within this period of seven days we can find a resolution to the political situation in Northern Ireland so we can continue to see the assembly government continuing.

"We are treating this with the utmost seriousness, we are putting every effort into this."

Mr Brokenshire met with Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party on Wednesday morning ahead of talks with the other parties and Justice Minister Claire Sugden.

He said there is a "high likelihood we are moving toward an election" while expressing fears of "greater division" an election might bring.

"My focus is on the here and now, on what can be achieved now, on what opportunities there are, what the potential may be to bring people together, rather than see people be driven further apart."

The first week of March has been mooted as a possible date for any such vote.

Sinn Fein ruled out negotiations ahead of an election and said Arlene Foster's call for an inquiry was "too little too late".

However, in a near simultaneous press conference in Dublin, Gerry Adams said his party "were always open to talks".

Mrs O'Neill said the party have withdrawn from all of the Stormont committees and told the Secretary of State to call an election.

She said: “We made it clear that we would not be re-nominating for the post of Deputy First Minister and told him he should call an election at the earliest possible opportunity.

“We told him that suspension of the institutions is not an option.

“We told him that there would be no return to the status quo and no return to direct rule.

“The crisis of confidence in the institutions has gone way beyond the RHI scandal.

“The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. 

“The DUP cannot be allowed to block equality for women, the LGBT community, ethnic minorities, the Irish language community and Irish identity.

She said: "It's now time to move to an election. Sinn Fein will not be renominating next Monday, it's now time for the electorate to have their say."

The Ulster Unionist party leader Mike Nesbitt said he believes the Secretary of State now knows that an election is "unavoidable".

The talks follow a tempestuous week for Northern Ireland politics.

Mr McGuinness resigned after 10 years in the role of deputy First Minister over DUP leader Arlene Foster's refusal to stand aside during an investigation into the green energy scheme.

Talks have been convened in a bid to avoid an election with Secretary of State James Brokenshire urging parties to work together to find a way around the impasse.

He said it was "entirely unhelpful and premature" to talk about the suspension of the devolved institutions.

On Tuesday Mrs Foster called for an investigation into the RHI to be set up under the 2005 Inquiries Act. That would mean a public inquiry which would compel witnesses to attend and documents to be produced.

After seven days with no renomination for the position, Mr Brokenshire has a “reasonable” period of time to call the election.

Under the legislation an election should then follow six weeks later.

Mrs Foster warned on Tuesday that an election would be "brutal" if it were to go ahead.

The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high and, without a cap, it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.

This enabled applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.

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