James Brokenshire criticised by Sinn Féin over public services amid Stormont crisis
SINN Féin has heavily criticised an attempt by the British Government to highlight the impact of Stormont's crisis on public services.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire emphasised the need for political stability as he visited patients in a hospital in Antrim.
But Sinn Féin accused Mr Brokenshire of having a "brass neck", claiming Conservative cuts to the north's finances were the biggest risk to frontline services.
The spat came on the fourth day of a two-week talks process aimed at saving powersharing.
Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said people would find Mr Brokenshire's comments "a bit rich".
"Relentless Tory cuts and austerity policies have taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of public services over the last seven years and the Tories are also pursuing a pro-Brexit agenda which will be disastrous for the people of this island," he said.
Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill told an audience in Derry last night that there had been "little progress" in the talks so far.
"The next week is critical in the political talks," she said.
She added: "Getting the political institutions back in place will be a challenge given the DUP's stated position on an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights and other fundamental requirements, and the British government's obstructive approach to legacy issues and other matters".
During his visit to Antrim Area Hospital, Mr Brokenshire said an executive needs to be in place "to be able to make decisions".
"We know this (stalemate) cannot carry on for an extended period of time because of the impact on public services like the one I have been seeing today."
He also warned the talks process would not be allowed to drift past Easter.
He said he would make a call on the state of negotiations over the Easter weekend to enable him to move legislation in Westminster once MPs return from recess on April 18.
That effectively makes Good Friday the deadline for the parties to reach consensus.
Whatever the outcome of the talks, Mr Brokenshire will need to table legislation in the Commons - either to restore a devolved executive or to pass laws to deliver a measure of financial stability to the north's public services.
"I need to make decisions over the Easter period to bring legislation forward at Westminster," he said. "That is the timeline I am working to."
Mr Brokenshire again made clear the reintroduction of direct rule would be considered if the parties fail to strike a deal.
Two of the main stumbling blocks are the contentious issues of Irish language protections and how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Mr Brokenshire said progress had been made on some important issues but he conceded: "There are some key issues that do remain outstanding, therefore if we are to get the resolution that we need I think we need that sense of compromise and that sense of the bigger picture."