BELFAST Northern Irish parties will have a "final opportunity" until early May to form a power-sharing government and avoid another election or direct rule from London, the British minister responsible for the province said on Wednesday as he paused talks for Easter.
Northern Ireland politics has been in crisis since Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein pulled out of government in January, prompting an election that ended the majority pro-British unionists had enjoyed for nearly a century.
However it has been unable to reach a new deal to return to power with the province's largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), raising the prospect of direct rule by Britain after six weeks of inconclusive talks.
While Northern Ireland minister James Brokenshire said the British government might draw up legislation to allow it to help local councils carry out their functions, he said there was still time for a deal to restore all devolved powers.
"The parties will have a final opportunity after Easter to reach agreement," Brokenshire said in a statement.
"There is still a lack of agreement on a small but significant number of issues... If no executive is formed by early May, this is likely to mean, however undesirable, either an election or a return to decision-making from Westminster."
England and Northern Ireland are to celebrate Easter this year with public holidays on April 14 and April 17.
Brokenshire said the election results clearly indicated that Northern Ireland had voted for a continuation of devolved government in the province and that agreement between unionists and nationalists remains achievable.
While no one is predicting the political impasse risks returning Northern Ireland to the violence between Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists that killed 3,600 people in three decades before a 1998 peace deal, it could increase sectarian tensions and freeze decision-making as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin and Alistair Smout in London; editing by Stephen Addison)