The British government has given Northern Ireland more time for the two main parties to reach a deal to revive a power-sharing executive. The country has been without a functioning administration for six months.
The British government on Monday gave the leaders of Northern Ireland's two main parties more time to strike a deal and revive the country's Catholic-Protestant power-sharing administration, the key achievement of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
A Thursday deadline passed without any agreement being reached between the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein and the pro-British loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire told parliament that "a deal remains achievable," but warned that the "hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer."
He said that if talks collapsed, the British government would be "ready to do what is needed to provide political decision-making in the best interests of Northern Ireland," in apparent reference to the possibility of direct rule from London if a devolved government failed to be formed.
Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration has been on ice since January, when a collapse of trust led Sinn Fein to leave the government. That triggered a snap election in March in which the DUP came out narrowly ahead of them.
Three months of negotiations have so far failed to bring any agreement betwwen the parties, which between them hold 55 seats in the 90-seat local assembly.
A second snap election would likely lead to still more polarization of the divided electorate, making direct rule from London seem the safest option.
Each party has blamed the other for the impasse. The sticking points include Sinn Fein's demand for legislation on the protection of the Irish language, which would see it used in broadcasts and on street and road signs. The DUP opposes the idea, and is also against same-sex marriage, which Sinn Fein advocates.
Sinn Fein has also called for the resignation of DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister pending an investigation into a failed renewable heating incentive scheme her party championed.
A deal between the DUP and British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives that will see the former supporting May's minority government on key parliamentary votes has also raised Sinn Fein's hackles. It feels that the DUP's new role means the British government is no longer impartial as required by the Good Friday accord.
The accord in 1998 was key to a peace process that ended three decades of violent sectarian conflict in the country. It saw responsibility for health, education, justice and Northern Ireland's economy devolved to the local government, made up of Protestant and Catholic parties.
tj/bw (AP, dpa, AFP)