Talks aimed at restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland have been extended until Monday after unionists and nationalists struggled to bridge their differences over the status of the Irish language.
The Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, the main unionist and nationalist voices, failed to meet a deadline of 4pm on Thursday set by the UK government to revive the region’s stuttering experiment with devolution at Stormont.
This prompted the UK government to give the two parties an extra few days of “space” to try to reach a power-sharing deal.
Downing Street said Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire, who is brokering the all-party talks alongside Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, would make a statement on Monday on the future of the current round of negotiations.
The failure to reach agreement on Thursday sparked anger among other political parties in Northern Ireland, which have effectively been sidelined as the DUP and Sinn Féin struggle to reconcile their differences.
At issue between them is whether, and how, to give official recognition to the Irish language. Agreement on this is essential to a wider deal to restore the devolved assembly and executive, which collapsed in January.
Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance party, said it was “inexcusable” that the DUP and Sinn Féin could not reach a compromise within the agreed timetable.
“Frankly, we are testing the public’s patience beyond breaking point,” she said. “We do ourselves no favours when we continue to let deadline after deadline slip. That [the Irish language] should not be a deal-breaker on either side.”
Robin Swann, leader of the Ulster Unionist party, said: “It’s not what we wanted, and it’s not what the people of Northern Ireland wanted.”
The inability of Northern Ireland’s two main political parties to restore devolution, at least for another few days, poses a dilemma for the UK government.
Downing Street insisted the move did not mean the talks had broken down. “We are now allowing the parties space to continue the discussions,” said prime minister Theresa May’s office.
However, if no power sharing agreement is reached by Monday, Mr Brokenshire must decide whether to restore direct rule to Northern Ireland from Westminster, call another election to the Stormont assembly, or give the political parties even more time to try to strike an agreement.
The UK and Irish governments remain hopeful that a deal can be done, provided the DUP and Sinn Féin compromise on the language issue.
The nationalists are demanding standalone legislation to give official status to the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
The unionists insist the language does not require special legislation, and further political protection can only come if it is offered to other minority languages.