By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) – There is no prospect of Northern Ireland’s main parties agreeing to restore devolved government, the leader of the largest unionist party said on Wednesday, calling on Britain to take further financial control of the region.
The British province has been without a devolved executive 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 two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of a united Ireland and mostly Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have failed to meet a number of deadlines and were told last month by the British and Irish governments that they had one last opportunity to reach a deal.
“In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said in a statement, two days after the British and Irish prime ministers said they were hopeful the stalemate would end soon.
“It is now incumbent upon Her Majesty’s Government to set a budget. Important decisions impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland have been sitting in limbo for too long.”
Foster’s colleague Simon Hamilton told reporters that a deal was “impossible” at this time but that the DUP wanted to pick the talks up again at a future date.
The British government, which is overseeing the talks alongside the Irish government, has already had to take steps toward 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 destabilize 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 which ended three decades of violence.
The absence of an executive has also limited Belfast’s say in Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union, which are set to have a bigger impact on Northern Ireland than on any other part of the United Kingdom.
The DUP and Sinn Fein 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”.
“Restoring a sustainable and fully functioning devolved government will remain our goal but we will not accept a one-sided deal,” said Foster, who as recently as Friday noted that the parties had made progress in the talks.
Foster’s statement was unfortunate given the progress that had been made, Sinn Fein finance spokesman in the Irish Republic, Pearse Doherty, told the Newstalk radio station.
(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Adrian Croft)