Minister criticised by Sinn Fein over public services amid Stormont crisis

James Brokenshire
James Brokenshire

Sinn Fein has heavily criticised an attempt by the UK Government to highlight the impact of Stormont's crisis on public services in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire emphasised the need for political stability as he visited patients in a hospital in Antrim.

Sinn Fein accused Mr Brokenshire of having a "brass neck", claiming Conservative cuts to the region's annual funding grant was the biggest risk to frontline services.

The spat came on the fourth day of a two-week talks process to save powersharing.

Sinn Fein Assembly member 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.

During the visit to Antrim Area Hospital, Mr Brokenshire said: "I am here at a hospital underlining the public services that are looking for certainty, looking for an executive being in place to be able to make decisions.

"We know this cannot carry on for an extended period of time because of the impact on public services like the one I have been seeing today."

The Secretary of State 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 - in ten days' time - 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 region's rowing parties to reach consensus - a timeline that is sure to prompt comparisons with the tense negotiations ahead of the historic Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

Whatever the outcome of the talks, Mr Brokenshire will need to table legislation in the Commons - either to restore a devolved executive or, in lieu of a deal, to pass laws to deliver a measure of financial stability to Northern Ireland's rudderless 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.

"It is that Easter focus that I have on needing for me to take decisions and therefore to introduce legislation there afterwards so that we can get on with the job, get an executive back in place and, equally for me, if we don't see that, to start to make decisions about what further contingencies may need to be put into place."

Mr Brokenshire again made clear the reintroduction of direct rule from London would be considered if the parties fail to strike a deal.

On Wednesday, Sinn Fein gave a bleak assessment of where the talks stood, claiming there had been no progress in the first three days of negotiations.

The Democratic Unionists hit back, accusing the republican party of peddling "doom and gloom" and questioning whether it was actually committed to the restoration of devolution.

The two main parties are taking part in discussions along with Stormont's other three main parties - the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance Party - and the UK and Irish governments.

Mr Brokenshire instigated the fresh talks after last month's negotiations to form a new powersharing administration ended in failure.

Parties missed a deadline to get a government up and running within three weeks of March's snap Assembly election.

Devolution crashed in January over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The subsequent election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein.

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."