Roundtable talks on the formation of a new Northern Executive will wind down this evening for the Easter holidays
The deadline for the formation of a new power-sharing Executive in the North has been extended until May with talks set to wind down for Easter.
The Northern Secretary James Brokenshire had previously set Good Friday as the deadline for all parties to reach a deal.
Speaking today he said the time-frame would be extended until May – adding that if no agreement can then be reached, he will consider whether to call a new round of elections or re-introduce direct rule from London.
"I believe that the outstanding issues between the parties are surmountable, but if no executive is formed by early May, I will need to take further steps to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs," he said.
"This is likely to mean - however undesirable - either a second election or a return to decision making from Westminster."
The current round of talks – which have been ongoing for ten days – will continue this evening before pausing for the Easter break.
Mr Brokenshire said bilateral meetings between the parties and the Irish and British governments would continue.
The minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan today insisted that negotiations had made “some progress” since the latest round of talks began – but warned that, “there are some challenging issues yet to be resolved.”
“I welcome the [Northern Ireland] Secretary of State's indication that he will include a provision to allow an Executive to be formed in early May in legislation which he will bring forward after Easter,” said Minister Flanagan.
“I believe that an agreement that fulfils the mandates given to the parties in the recent election is not only desirable but achievable in that time-frame.
It is now almost six weeks since Sinn Féin secured its best-ever performance at the Assembly elections, cutting the DUPs 10-seat advantage to one.
Talks have reportedly been constructive over the past ten days – but there has been little progress on key issues such as the future of the Irish Language Act and methods for dealing with the legacy of the troubles.
The main parties have blamed each other for the stalemate - with Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill saying there is little prospect of reaching agreement and calling for a new round of elections:
“We remain engaged,” she said. “We will continue to talk to all the other parties – to both the British government and the Irish government.”
“We want these institutions to work; but they have to deliver for all citizens.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster meanwhile, has said that the talks do not seem to be bringing the two sides closer together adding that “there seems to be new issues arising every day.”
It remains unclear exactly when the talks will resume next week.
Minister Flanagan said reaching a deal is “demonstrably in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.”
“All parties have made clear that they want to see the devolved power-sharing institutions up and running,” he said. “That is also the firm objective of both Governments and it is clearly the outcome that serves the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
He said the restoration of power-sharing is essential “at this critical and challenging time for Northern Ireland as we approach negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”
He encouraged all parties in the talks to “maintain informal contacts” over Easter and to reflect on what can be achieved with an Executive that operates “effectively and sustainably.”