James Brokenshire plays for time in Northern Ireland. Will it work?

Sinn Fein's leader at Stormont Michelle O'Neill has said the talks process aimed at restoring devolution in Northern Ireland has run its course

Northern Ireland could be set for a fresh election or a return to direct British rule of the province after the two main parties in negotiations to form a new government said on Sunday that talks had run their course without success.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that: "In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide for political stability and good governance".

A further statement will be made in Parliament tomorrow.

"Mr Brokenshire warned that Northern Ireland was "rapidly approaching the point at which "(they) will not have an agreed Budget", a state which was "not sustainable" and "will have consequences for public services".

Journalist Siobhan Fenton reports that Northern Ireland now faces either its third parliamentary election in 12 months, or it will face direct rule from Westminster.

He said he was working closely with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who was playing an "extremely important" role in the talks.

The political crisis began when O'Neill's predecessor, Martin McGuinness, stepped down in protest at the handling of a botched green energy programme by the DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster.

If Northern Ireland's main parties fail to reach a deal by 4pm today, Brokenshire will intervene, which could lead to direct rule from London being imposed.

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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.

After the elections in early March, the DUP remained the largest party in the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly, with 28 seats, but Sinn Fein gained ground to move to within one seat.

The two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, blamed each other while Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill said her party walked away from negotiations because the DUP did not have "the right attitude".

However, he admitted there remained significant gaps between the parties, "particularly over issues surrounding culture and identity".

"Unfortunately, the DUP maintained their position in relation to blocking equality, delivery of equality for citizens, that was the problem".

"It saddens us that Sinn Fein are prepared to put welfare reform measures and the most vulnerable at risk simply to pursue their own agenda".

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.

Republicans have also been seeking movement on issues such as an Irish language act giving the tongue official status in Northern Ireland, a hugely symbolic measure but deeply problematic for some unionists.

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