LONDON – The deadline for political parties in Northern Ireland to form a new government has been extended after the parties have failed to reach a deal.
The deadline had been set by Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire as Thursday at 16.00 (BST), in an attempt to force the parties into a new power-sharing agreement. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January.
Downing Street has now confirmed that talks have been extended until Monday, saying that “good progress” has been made. This is the fourth time that the deadline for negotiations have been extended this year.
If an agreement has not been reached by Monday, there is the possibility of a return to direct rule from Westminster for the first time in a decade or the third round of assembly elections in the space of just 13 months, although the deadline could be extended.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s Edwin Poots told reporters that “there is not going to be a breakthrough leading to nominations today.”
Poot said: “At this stage, we aren’t close to an agreement, there is considerable work to be done and we believe the ball is in the court of Sinn Fein in the main in dealing with a series of outstanding issues.”
A planned sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont to nominate new ministers was cancelled on Thursday afternoon, amid debate over the future of negotiations.
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murray said that it was “make your mind up time for the DUP” and that the republican party told Brokenshire that they “will not countenance any return to direct rule”.
“The British government must accept its responsibility”
Commenting on why a fourth deadline to miss a deadline was broken, Murray accused Theresa May’s UK government of undermining talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
“The British Government must accept its responsibility for the failure to reach an agreement to date,” Murray said.
“Its alliance with the DUP has deepened DUP intransigence and arrogance and emboldened its anti-rights, anti-equality agenda.”
The Conservative minority government has formed a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the DUP in order to have a working majority on key votes. As part of the deal £1.5 billion was given to Northern Ireland.
Earlier on Thursday afternoon, Brokenshire said: “The parties here are continuing to engage intensively with a view to agree the formation of an Executive. Much progress has been made but a number of outstanding issues remain.
- Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
“I believe that a resolution can be found and I am urging the parties to continue focusing all their efforts on achieving this.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said Brokenshire told parties that he will take the weekend to “reflect” on how to proceed, before giving a statement to the House of Commons on Monday. It is expected that talks will continue until then.
The split between Sinn Fein and the DUP appears to be over a handful of crucial issues, the biggest of which is Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish language act to give Irish parity with English in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein has also put pressure on the DUP over LGBT rights in the region, although they did drop their original requirement that the DUP’s Arlene Foster could not become first minister again.
The Green Party’s leader in Northern Ireland, Steve Agnew said “it’s about parties saving face, rather than parties trying to save the Assembly. And I think that’s wrong and we should give the institutions the respect they deserve.”
The executive collapsed in January after then deputy minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, for which Foster is seen as responsible.
Irish foreign secretary Simon Coveney said: “Like the Secretary of State, I believe that an agreement is still within reach – an agreement that would allow a power-sharing Executive to be formed on a sustainable basis.”
What could happen next?
The failure of Northern Ireland’s two biggest political parties to reach a power-sharing deal so far raises the prospect of direct rule from Westminster for the first time since the St Andrews’ Agreement was signed in 2007.
The other possibilities are that another assembly election is called, which would be the fifth vote for the people of Northern Ireland in just over a year, or that the current assembly is put in “warm storage” while civil servants run the devolved institutions before talks resume.
£1 billion for Northern Ireland that was agreed in the Tory-DUP deal is not under threat, as it would be shared out across the region by the government in Westminster rather than the devolved assembly.