Britain tries to resolve Belfast crisis ahead of Brexit

2017-03-27 11:45

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London - Britain is aiming for an 11th hour solution to political deadlock in Belfast on Monday, hoping to avoid further turmoil before London kick-starts Brexit proceedings that could change the status of the border between Northern and the Republic of Ireland.

The two main parties in Northern Ireland have declared talks to reach a power-sharing agreement are over, but London is doggedly trying to push for a deal.

"Even at this stage I urge political parties to agree to work to form an executive and provide people here with the strong and stable devolved government that they want," James Brokenshire, Britain's Northern Ireland Minister who has chaired the three weeks of talks, said on Sunday.

The political crisis was sparked in January when the deputy first minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, resigned over First Minister Arlene Foster's handling of a green energy scheme introduced while she was economy minister.

The collapse of the executive prompted a snap election which failed to end the stalemate between Sinn Fein, representing Catholic Irish nationalists, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the pro-British and Protestant party led by Foster.

The parties were given until 16:00 (15:00 GMT) on Monday to agree on a new executive. But Sinn Fein on Sunday said they had reached "the end of the road".

"The talks process has run its course and Sinn Fein will not be nominating for the position of speaker or for the executive office tomorrow (Monday)," said Michelle O'Neill, the party's leader in Northern Ireland.

Foster gave a similar assessment, saying: "Regrettable the reality is that sufficient progress was not achieved in the time available to form a new Executive."

McGuinness, who died on Tuesday from a rare heart condition, had called for Foster to step down temporarily pending the conclusion of a public inquiry into the failed scheme which is expected to cost taxpayers up to half a billion pounds. 

If his successor O'Neill fails to agree on a power-sharing deal with Foster by the Monday deadline, it will fall to Brokenshire to intervene and governance of Northern Ireland could be transferred to London.

UK divided before Brexit 

The British government is eager to end the deadlock ahead of starting proceedings to leave the European Union, which Prime Minister Theresa May has scheduled for Wednesday with the triggering of Article 50 of the bloc's Lisbon Treaty.

But May's aim to show a united front to Brussels risks being weakened by the two provinces which voted to remain in the EU - Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Key to the negotiations will be the status of Britain's land border with the bloc - between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is battling for the province to hold a referendum on independence from Britain in light of the division over Brexit.

She is expected to win the backing of Scottish lawmakers in a vote on Tuesday to take the referendum request to London, as the British government's approval is needed to hold such a vote.

May will travel to Scotland on Monday where she will meet government staff and hold talks with Sturgeon. The prime minister will also emphasise the need for the four devolved nations - including pro-Brexit England and Wales - to stick together.

"When this great union of nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - sets its mind on something and works together with determination, we are an unstoppable force," May will say in a speech, published in advance by her office.

Read more on:    sinn fein  |  eu  |  theresa may  |  uk  |  brexit

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