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Stormont party leaders given more time to reach powersharing deal


Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire updated the House of Commons

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire updated the House of Commons

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire updated the House of Commons

Stormont's political leaders have been given yet more time to resolve their differences and restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said the UK Government remained focused over the "crucial days ahead" on establishing a coalition executive, despite a deadline for agreement lapsing last week.

Mr Brokenshire's warning of "profound and serious implications" if Thursday's deadline was missed prompted speculation that he could call another snap election or impose some form of direct rule from Westminster.

In his statement to MPs on Monday, Mr Brokenshire opted to allow talks at Stormont Castle to continue, expressing hope that a deal could still be struck in the week ahead.

"I am clear that the return of an inclusive, devolved government by a powersharing executive is what would be profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland and that will remain our overriding focus in the crucial days ahead," he said.

His optimism was not mirrored at Stormont, where the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein gave a downbeat assessment, blaming each other for the impasse.

Sticking points include the shape of legislation to protect Irish language speakers, the DUP's opposition to lifting the region's ban on same-sex marriage, and mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

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While he did not set a new deadline - four have already passed - Mr Brokenshire warned he would soon have to step in to pass a Stormont budget.

"That point is coming and the lack of a formal budget is not something that can be sustained indefinitely," he said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed Sinn Fein was more concerned with adding to its "shopping list" of demands rather than seeking compromises to restore powersharing.

Mrs Foster said her party wanted to see devolution restored but was not prepared to agree a one-sided deal that would leave the unionist community feeling "short-changed".

"Sinn Fein have a shopping list, a shopping list that seems to get longer every time we meet with them," she said.

"That is very disappointing for all of the people of Northern Ireland who make it very clear to us that they want to see devolution back up and running again on a fair and proportionate basis."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said her party was seeking "basic rights".

"If that's a shopping list then I am very proud of that shopping list - because it's about delivering people their rights," she said.

"We have very, very limited time ahead of us - a period in which we need to see those issues progressed.

"What we are asking for is very, very reasonable - it's basic rights."

Mrs O'Neill, whose party raised concerns about the prospects of a deal amid heightened tensions around the summer marching season, claimed Mr Brokenshire was "pandering to the DUP".

The three smaller Stormont parties also criticised the Secretary of State.

The SDLP's Nichola Mallon said he was "kicking the can down the road" while UUP leader Robin Swann said he had not helped address uncertainty around the process.

"Unfortunately for us it hasn't supplied any further clarity to this process," he said.

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said Mr Brokenshire's statement was "distinctly underwhelming".

"It has missed the opportunity to be much more robust in pushing for agreement and maintaining the integrity of deadlines," he said.

Reacting to Mr Brokenshire's statement at Westminster, DUP MP Ian Paisley questioned whether devolution was a "dead bird".

"At some point there's got to be a realisation that the path could possibly be dead, that it has deceased of life, it is no more," he said.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney urged the parties to "stretch themselves" to find mutual accommodation.

"The Northern Ireland Secretary of State's statement in Westminster this afternoon underlines that time is short to secure agreement on the formation of a powersharing Executive and on the implementation of outstanding commitments from previous agreements," he said.

"The Stormont talks are ongoing and the parties continue to engage. The next 24 hours will be vital if progress is to be made before advent of the summer holiday period.

"The key issues to be resolved will be no easier in the autumn than they are now. Indeed, with the passage of time, they may become more intractable as the hiatus in governance increasingly impacts on the welfare of citizens."

The devolved institutions imploded in January when Mrs Foster was forced from office after Sinn Fein's then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, quit.

That was in protest at the DUP's handling of the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that left the administration facing a £490 million overspend.

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