Northern Ireland power-sharing deadline set to expire

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Monday’s Assembly session to appoint a first and deputy first minister looks set to be suspended

The deadline to form a new power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland after this month’s snap election is set to expire with no sign of agreement.

After Sunday’s talks at Stormont Castle collapsed, the Northern Ireland Office will have to determine the way ahead.

With no deal in sight before a 16:00 deadline, Monday’s Assembly session to appoint a first and deputy first minister is likely to be suspended.

The two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, blamed each other.

The deadlock followed a snap election on 2 March, which brought an end to Stormont’s unionist majority: The DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin was cut from 10 seats to one.

Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement, the executive must be jointly run by unionists and nationalists, with the largest party being invited to put forward a candidate for first minister.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness quit as deputy first minister in January in protest against the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme.

The party said it would not share power with DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister until the conclusion of a public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Mr McGuinness, who had been suffering from a rare heart condition, died last week at the age of 66.

‘Fool’s paradise’

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Sinn Féin were never really serious about getting the executive up and running, and that they simply played for time.

“It is very clear from the people they had at the talks that they were very focused on their southern election prospects, that is deeply regrettable,” he told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.

Analysis – BBC News NI political editor Mark Devenport

The formal session of the assembly, which was due at noon, is likely to be suspended.

The one small glimmer of hope there is that, instead of having an extended public session of recrimination, they’ve decided to simply cancel it altogether.

But that’s a fairly small glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a complete collapse of the talks process.

I think Secretary of State James Brokenshire will use case law, which says that he’s got a reasonable period to time to consider calling an election.

That will allow him maybe to play for time over the course of the Westminster recess.

During that time we’ll see civil servants taking hold of the budget, maybe a bit of pain in terms of reduced budgets and redundancy notices going out.

The Northern Ireland Office may hope that that increases the pressure no the local politicians to come up with a compromise.

“We want to get devolution up and running, but we need a partner that is serious and wants to work realistically.”

But Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said people were living in “a fool’s paradise” if they thought they could “simply walk back into the executive”.

“Martin McGuinness, in his letter of resignation, made it very clear the difficulties that were troubling the executive and the need to get back to a new basis of genuine power-sharing and a way of doing business under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Murphy told Good Morning Ulster.

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Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

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Sinn Féin confirmed on Sunday it would not nominate ministers to a new power-sharing executive

“He very clearly said, in one of his last interviews, we will not be going back to the way things were,” said Mr Murphy.

He added that outstanding issues, such as dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and the Irish language, had been agreed in the past and Sinn Féin wanted to see implementation of those deals.

‘Run its course’

However, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Sinn Féin did not raise the issue of Mrs Foster’s position during the latest negotiations.

Speaking to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Mr Donaldson said: “Sinn Féin have announced that they are withdrawing from the talks, and can I just say that the reason that they have given is not because of Arlene Foster’s position, but because they are not satisfied that there is a sufficient level of agreement on some of the outstanding issues.”

Over the weekend, the Stormont politicians could not find any common ground on crucial issues such as Irish language legislation or the legacy of the Troubles.

Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, said on Sunday negotiations had “come to the end of the road” and that her party would not be nominating a candidate for the position of speaker or for the executive office.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has since been in contact with Prime Minister Theresa May.

He faces a choice between fresh elections, direct rule from London or maybe playing for time in the hope some compromise can be found.

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, seen here with party colleague Nichola Mallon, said space was needed for fresh negotiations

Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party said the government would have “to take the lead” on Monday.

Mr Brokenshire may try to buy a little time by allowing the parties to reach an agreement over the Assembly’s Easter break, Mr Elliot told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called on Mr Brokenshire to “create space for all parties to refresh their outlook on the challenges we face”.

The 2 March election left nationalist parties holding an equal number of seats to unionists, with non-aligned parties holding the balance of power.

Northern Ireland power-sharing deadline set to expire}

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