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London to set Northern Ireland budget, sparking concerns of direct rule

The British government has said it is preparing to impose a budget on Northern Ireland after its main parties failed to form a power-sharing government. The move has raised concerns that London may impose direct rule.

Britain's minister for Northern Ireland said on Wednesday that London is starting the process of setting a budget after failed attempts to restore Northern Ireland's collapsed power-sharing administration.

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"This can't simply continue forever and a day ... There are decisions that have been stored up that have to be taken," Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire (pictured above) told journalists.

He said unless the British government set a budget, Northern Ireland would start to run out of money by the end of the month.

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He noted that the move does not amount to Britain imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland, and said the budget process could be handed back to Belfast if its two main parties reach an agreement.

The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Irish Nationalists Sinn Fein failed to meet a Monday deadline to strike an accord, with the latest round of talks collapsing on Wednesday.

Many in Northern Ireland worry that direct rule from London would further deteriorate the political balance between the DUP and Sinn Fein which has already been strained by Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Irish role in direct rule

Wednesday's move also raised concerns that a diplomatic spat could erupt over the Republic of Ireland's role in the governance of Northern Ireland should the power-sharing government not be restored.

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The Irish government argues that under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it should be involved in the direct running of Northern Ireland if power-sharing falls apart.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the collapse of the talks were "regrettable and deeply concerning," adding that direct rule from London could complicate relations with the British government.

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"The prospect of direct rule in Northern Ireland and the Irish government's insistence on having a role in that — an appropriate role consistent with the Good Friday Agreement — is not where we want to be," Coveney told RTE radio.

A British government spokesman said in September that London would "never countenance" joint authority in Northern Ireland.

Sharing power

Sinn Fein and DUP have shared power in Northern Ireland for a decade under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, which ended 30 years of violence that killed around 3,600 people.

In January, Sinn Fein pulled out of the power-sharing government, saying it was not being treated as an equal partner.

"Sinn Fein is disappointed that the last few weeks of negotiations have ended in failure," the party's leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, told journalists. "But as you all know endless talks without conclusion are not sustainable."

Gregory Campbell, a DUP member of parliament, accused the Irish Nationalists of holding back talks with "a narrow political agenda," including a drive for greater recognition for the Irish language.

rs/jm (AP, Reuters)

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