The British government has decided to extend the deadline on talks to form a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland between Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists until after a snap UK-wide election, two sources told Reuters on Thursday.
Several parties said the talks had been rendered unsustainable by Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision on Tuesday to call a general election for June 8, which pits the parties involved in the talks against each other.
The extension allows the British government to avoid deciding whether to call a fresh election in Northern Ireland – the third in a year – or to revert to direct rule from London for the first time in a decade.
An official close to the regional administration and a member of one of the parties involved in the talks confirmed a decision had been made to extend the talks deadline to the end of June.
Press officers for the British government’s Northern Ireland Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Belfast government collapsed in January when Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein withdrew over a heating subsidy scandal, saying they were being treated by First Minister Arlene Foster with “deep-seated arrogance”.
That triggered an election on March 2 that ended the majority pro-British unionists had enjoyed for nearly a century.
Over a month of talks since then have shown little sign of securing a new power-sharing pact of the sort mandated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists.
While no one is forecasting a return to the bloodshed that killed 3,600 people over three decades, the political impasse could increase sectarian tensions and freeze decision-making as Britain prepares to exit the European Union.
As the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the EU, Northern Ireland faces severe disruption to its economy from a “hard Brexit”.
Any sign of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, could inflame Irish nationalists who seek a united Ireland.
(Writing by Conor Humphries, editing by Estelle Shirbon)