Relationships between Northern Ireland’s political parties and the secretary of state are said to be at an “all-time low”, after what has been described as an “embarrassing” meeting at Stormont.
Today’s round table meeting had been billed as an all-party briefing with a view to restarting the failed talks process.
But the parties emerged after just 45 minutes to deliver scathing criticism of Karen Bradley’s handling of the process.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the meeting had been a box-ticking exercise, and labelled it “badly briefed and badly advised”.
He said Ms Bradley must now either take “ownership of the process”, or introduce direct rule for Northern Ireland from Westminster.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the meeting as a “complete and utter waste of time”.
“It is quite clear that the British Government are totally unprepared to take the necessary next steps to get powersharing restored.
“Today is an embarrassing day for the Secretary of State. Quite simply, it is not her job to wait for a ‘consensus’, her job, alongside the Tanaiste, is to kickstart the talks process.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long said the restoration of devolution was now further away than it had been when talks collapsed in February.
Branding the briefing “counter-productive”, she added: “I think relationships between parties, and indeed the secretary of state, are possibly now at an all-time low.”
The Sinn Fein delegation gave a short statement to the media after the meeting, before leaving without taking questions.
Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd accused the government of “treating large sections of this society with utter and complete contempt”.
The DUP has not yet given a reaction to the meeting.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mrs Bradley said she intended to brief the parties on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, which is intended to allow time and space for political parties to agree a return to powersharing government.
She added: “I want to get those parties in a room together and really go through with them how this act will deliver for them.
“But they have to do the right thing, come back into government, and I want to see them do that as soon as possible.”
Devolved government at Stormont has been mothballed since January 2017 following a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Numerous attempts at talks to agree to the return of the Executive have ended in failure.