Northern Ireland

Eastwood calls for talks 'pause' until after election

Colum Eastwood Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Stormont's politicians should 'give up the pretence' of negotiations, said Colum Eastwood

Talks to restore a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland should be "paused" until after the snap general election, the SDLP leader has said.

Colum Eastwood said the idea of a deal being struck during the campaign was "not credible" and politicians "should give up the pretence of negotiations".

The parties will review the talks process on Thursday with the UK and Irish governments, Sinn Féin has said.

At Westminster, MPs have passed an emergency bill to extend the talks.

A new 29 June deadline is proposed to give parties more time for negotiations after the election.

The bill would also allow the collection of rates in the absence of an executive, and could become law by the end of the week.

'A last resort'

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has published indicative figures for a budget he will impose if Stormont's parties do not reach a deal.

It would include a 2.5% cut to spending on education.

Image caption James Brokenshire has put forward an emergency bill to extend the deadline of the Stormont talks

Speaking in the House of Commons, he said the government would be prepared to implement it "as a last resort".

"This is not a step any government would take lightly," he said.

"But this house must not forget the duties we uphold for the people of Northern Ireland."

'Makes conversation difficult'

A round-table discussion involving the parties took place on Monday, with more bilateral meetings due in the coming days.

The leaders of the two main unionist parties are meeting on Monday to discuss a possible electoral pact.

But Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster has "made the conversation a bit more difficult" after she outlined her party's position in the Belfast Telegraph.

The snap general election comes after devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed in January over a botched energy scheme.

The late Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Féin, quit as deputy first minister in protest at the DUP's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme scandal.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Northern Ireland has been without an executive since power-sharing collapsed in January

It led to a snap Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March, which saw a surge in Sinn Féin's vote.

Stormont's two largest parties have been unable to reach agreement to share power since that date, and were warned they face either a second assembly election or direct rule from Westminster.

Bill's accelerated passage

However, Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to call an election to the House of Commons made a deal even less likely as parties switched to campaign mode.

The government published its Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates Bill on Friday.

It began its accelerated passage through Westminster late on Monday afternoon, with MPs discussing the measures in a debate lasting just under four hours.

Members of the House of Lords will get their opportunity to scrutinise the bill on Wednesday.

Once passed, the law will give he Northern Ireland civil service the authority to collect the regional rate, increased in line with inflation, and push the deadline for restoring devolution back to 29 June.

That means the Stormont parties will not face the near impossible task of finding a compromise while campaigning in the general election.

However, whether they can reach a deal in the summer, which they could not do in the spring, remains open to doubt.

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