Northern Ireland faces ‘direct rule by stealth’ as talks falter

Henry McDonald in Belfast
Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire will take a decision about the viability of the talks over the Easter weekend. Photograph: David Young/PA

Only a “miracle” can save talks aimed at restoring a power sharing government in Northern Ireland, an MP has warned. With just over a week left before the deadline on discussions between the Northern Irish parties, the prospect of what has been called “direct rule by stealth” now appears to be closer than at any time since the Good Friday agreement.

Other sources at the negotiations in Belfast, which are continuing over the weekend, said the British government would be forced to introduce legislation that would transfer power from some devolved departments back to London by the end of April.

These would include the departments of finance and health. The last power-sharing executive failed to set a budget and in the absence of a new administration being formed before the deadline – the day after Easter Monday – a London-directed emergency budget would allow for cash to be released for the province’s health service, sources at the talks have told the Observer.

The large community and voluntary sector would also receive emergency funding from London to prevent major job losses towards the end of this month, the sources said, describing the move as “direct rule by stealth”.

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott, the leader in the talks for the UUP, cast doubt on any agreement being secured before the 18 April deadline set by Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire last week.

On the prospect of a deal being secured between the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, he said on Saturday: “There has been quite a lot of talking but in my view progress has been extremely limited, and it is going to take little short of a miracle to get a deal.”

Eliott, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, was speaking before his party’s spring conference.

Sinn Féin has warned of a fresh round of elections if the talks fail, but the more likely short-term outcome is the transfer of some powers from Belfast to London while the British and Irish governments try for a third round of negotiations in early summer.

The republican party has accused London of pandering to the DUP’s attempts to “block equality” at the talks. The Observer has learned that the biggest sticking point is Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish Language Act, which would put Gaelic on an equal par with English in Northern Ireland and would create, for instance, the right to have a court case heard solely in the Irish language.

Other contentious issues, such as how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, are understood to be more soluble. One proposal being discussed is to hold a comprehensive public consultation, involving victims and their families, that would then independently decide on the appropriate mechanism to deal with the region’s violent past.

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