Talks to restart Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government have broken down yet again, although Britain held out hope that a solution could still be reached.
The British province has been without a devolved executive – a central part of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence – for over a year since Irish nationalists Sinn Fein withdrew from the compulsory power-sharing government with their arch-rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The long-running talks have also been complicated by the fact that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government depends on the support of the DUP to pass legislation in London.
The two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of a united Ireland and Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have failed to meet a number of deadlines.
They were told last month by the British and Irish governments that they had one last opportunity to reach a deal.
“While substantive progress has been made, it appears this phase of talks has reached a conclusion,” Britain’s Northern Ireland minister Karen Bradley said.
“The position of the UK government remains the same: devolved government is in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland and is best for the union. I believe the basis for an accommodation (between the parties) still exists.”
But the talks collapsed when DUP leader Arlene Foster issued a statement on Wednesday saying she saw no current prospect of a deal.
Foster’s colleague Simon Hamilton told reporters agreement was “impossible” at this time but that the DUP wanted to pick the talks up at a future date.
The British government, which is overseeing the talks alongside the Irish government, has already had to take steps towards ruling the region directly from London for the first time in a decade, setting a budget late last year that runs until the end of March.
Many fear direct rule would further destabilise a delicate balance between nationalists and unionists who, until last year, had run the province since 2007 under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that mostly ended decades of sectarian conflict that killed more than 3,600 people.
The parties have failed to reach agreement on a number of issues, in particular additional rights for Irish-language speakers which Foster highlighted as the chief reason why they had “reached an impasse”.
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