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Parties urged to make positions clear as James Brokenshire warns that time is running out

James Brokenshire warned that the opportunities for agreement were increasingly limited. Picture by Hugh Russell

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood last night called on his Stormont counterparts to make their bottom lines clear ahead of an expected intensification of efforts to save devolution.

The Foyle MLA said his party would be publishing its positions in the talks process this week so the public could make up its own mind on who was responsible for the political impasse.

The SDLP leader was speaking after meeting Secretary of State James Brokenshire at Stortmont.

Mr Brokenshire has warned that the opportunity to secure agreement is rapidly decreasing, as financial pressure on the north's public services grows.

It is thought mid-to-late October has been earmarked as the deadline for restoring devolution, otherwise Westminster legislation will be required to enable Stormont's minister-less departments to spend money.

While there is a degree of flexibility in terms of when MPs must pass an appropriation bill to authorise payments in the absence of an executive, it is understood that the process cannot drift beyond the end of next month.

It remains unclear how Mr Brokenshire plans to seek to break the seven-month logjam. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will travel north today to meet the five parties before the two governments evaluate their limited options.

Last week, DUP leader Arlene Foster urged Sinn Féin to agree to the appointment of executive ministers, while negotiations around language and culture could take place in "time-limited" process. However, the proposal was rejected by republicans on the basis that it was not new.

Speaking at Stormont House yesterday evening after a day spent meeting delegations from each party, Mr Brokenshire warned that financial pressures on the regional economy and health service could force the British government to bring forward a budget – potentially ushering in direct rule for the first time in a decade.

"I cannot ignore the growing concern in the wider community here about the impact that the current political impasse is having on the local economy and on the delivery of key public services," he said.

He indicated that it was not his preferred plan but that he was being left with little option because the British government had a duty to "provide political stability and certainty".

"The window of opportunity to restore devolution and to form an executive is closing rapidly as we move further into the autumn.

"With pressures on public services already evident, most particularly in the health service, the need for intervention is becoming increasingly clear."

Mr Brokenshire said that if the impasse continued, Westminster would legislate for a budget and he would then consider the next steps.

Earlier, DUP leader Arlene Foster accused Sinn Féin of being a "barrier" to agreement.

She said her party did not want prolonged negotiations.

"We think we should be able to come to a determination pretty quickly whether Sinn Féin want to go back into government," she said.

"Certainly for our part we do – we have no red lines, we have no barriers."

Sinn Féin morthern leader Michelle O'Neill also called for intense talks, saying that outstanding issues could be resolved within days if people had the right attitude.

"We have a short timeframe in front of us – this time is critical and must not be wasted," she said.

"I have also reaffirmed my view to Mr Brokenshire that the political onus is on him to deliver on the legacy inquest funding, and not allow the Tory partnership with the DUP at Westminster to deny the delivery of rights here, which are enjoyed by citizens elsewhere on these islands."

Mr Eastwood said a deal was still doable – "but only if the political will exists do one".

"We are clear that any return to a formal talks process requires meaningful engagement on all issues and with all parties if we are to break the deadlock," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry called for independent mediator to chair the talks.

"The talks deadlines, albeit theoretical ones, were always imminent and so the view was it would take too long to identify such a mediator and brief them on the issues," he said.

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