Northern Ireland risks falling back under direct rule from the UK Government unless it implements welfare reforms and balances its budget, Theresa Villiers has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said direct rule would be a “severe setback” and that the Government was doing everything it could to prevent it.
But she warned parties in the Province that are taking a “hard line” against welfare reform that they could end up collapsing the devolved Stormont government.
She insisted political talks need to find a way to agree a budget as well as end the terrorist threat from dissident republicans.
Ms Villiers told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester: “Unlike last year, we simply don’t have the luxury of endless long hours of discussions stretching on and on and on until Christmas.
“What’s at stake is not just the credibility of devolved government in Northern Ireland but the survival of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
“One only has to look round Europe to see the problems caused when an administration cannot live within its budget and the terribly harsh impact that can have on some of the most vulnerable in society.
“Replaying that scenario in Northern Ireland would stretch political relationships well beyond breaking point.
“And there’s now a real risk that those taking a hard line against welfare reform could end up running the devolved institutions into collapse as collateral damage.
“A return to direct rule would be a severe setback after everything that’s been achieved over recent years and we are doing all we can to prevent it.”
Ms Villiers also attacked the new Labour leadership, suggesting leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell may have sympathised with the IRA.
She said: “I have to say that many will view with grave concern the fact that, as recently as August, the leader the Labour Party have just elected was asked five times in an interview to condemn IRA terrorism and five times failed to do so.
“And while the shadow chancellor might have issued a carefully worded apology for the hurt caused by his comments on the IRA, I say it’s time he retracted in full his call to honour IRA terrorists.”
l For the latest from the Tory Party conference see page 10