BELFAST Northern Ireland faces another election unless rival parties can agree on a power-sharing arrangement within three weeks, the British government's minister for the region warned on Thursday.
Talks to form a new devolved administration in Belfast began on Monday, in the wake of a snap election that catapulted the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein to within a seat of their rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The main nationalist and unionist parties have until March 27 to form a government to avoid either another quick election or even the threat of having decision-making taken back to London for the first time since 2007, although the minister played down that idea.
"If no agreement is reached in the short window following the election, there would be a number of serious consequences," Northern Irish Secretary of State James Brokenshire said in a letter to MPs that was seen by Reuters.
"There would be no Executive, no real budget and risks to public services. Ultimately we would be facing a second election with ongoing disruption and uncertainty for businesses and the people of Northern Ireland that would bring."
Among its demands, Sinn Fein insists they will not vote DUP leader Arlene Foster back in as First Minister until the scandal that triggered the election - a botched renewable heating scheme she established - is cleared up.
Foster has resisted those calls, saying she is not prepared to step aside temporarily while a public inquiry that could take six to 12 months is held.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams told Reuters on Thursday that there was no reason why, if the will is there, that the talks could not conclude positively. He described the early stages as "very much a work in progress."
In his letter to MPs, Brokenshire sought to soothe concerns that he was not contemplating a reintroduction of direct rule from London.
"I am clear that I am not contemplating any other outcome but a resumption of devolved government as soon as possible. This is what the people want and what Northern Ireland needs," he said.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin and Hugh Lawson)