Mary Lou McDonald says DUP 'collapsed the talks process' in Northern Ireland

Ms McDonald was setting out the party's position following yesterday's announcement by Ms Foster that efforts to restore power-sharing in Stormont have failed.

The British government's only immediate legal option is to call for new elections in Northern Ireland, but it is coming under pressure from the DUP not to do so and to opt instead for direct rule. It is a scenario which runs against everything imagined, won and endorsed in the Good Friday Agreement.

Foster, whose party agreed to support Theresa May's Conservative government in Parliament after the election past year, said there was "no prospect" of reaching a deal for a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland between DUP and Sinn Fein.

But she said Sinn Fein's demand for an Irish Language Act to enshrine the status of Irish was not "fair and balanced" and did not respect "the unionist and British identity" of Northern Ireland's Protestants.

The two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of a united Ireland and Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have failed to meet a number of deadlines, and the latest round of talks fell apart over disagreement on additional rights for Irish-language speakers.

Earlier this week, former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers claimed it was now "inevitable" that Westminster will have to set a budget for Northern Ireland's authorities.

Power-sharing talks between nationalists and unionists have been going on for 13 months with little success. For the British government to do that, it would have to pass legislation giving it emergency powers to take over the running of the province.

Speaking at a press conference, she said that DUP leader Arlene Foster brought the talks to a close.

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In her statement, Foster said it was incumbent on London to intervene "to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure".

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he "regretted" the breakdown in talks.

Dublin opposes the prospect of a long-term direct rule, as the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney told the Irish public broadcaster RTÉ on Thursday.

Mrs Foster dismissed claims said she had lost control of her party as "nonsense" and said that she had kept her party officers briefed throughout the negotiations.

Many unionists see the promotion of Irish as an attempt to undermine Northern Ireland's British identity, and as a step toward Sinn Fein's ultimate goal of joining it with the Republic of Ireland.

The conference is a peace process construct created to give the Irish Government a consultative role in the UK Government's handling of non-devolved issues in Northern Ireland.

George Hamilton, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said last week that a hard border would have to be patrolled 24 hours a day and would put his officers' lives in greater danger from hard-core paramilitary groups who have never approved of the Good Friday Agreement.

The two sides traded blame for failing to break a stalemate that has left Northern Ireland's 1.8 million people without a functioning administration for more than a year.

  • Jon Douglas