Dublin: Talks due to start Monday on restoring a key power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland risk becoming even more arduous as the province's ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) nears an alliance with Britain's Conservative Party.
The power-sharing executive is the cornerstone of a peace process that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland between Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British unionists.
It fell apart in January when the Irish republican Sinn Fein party pulled out after months of simmering conflict with the pro-British DUP.
But the DUP is now negotiating an imminent deal with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is reeling from the loss of a parliamentary majority in last week's election and hoping to secure the DUP's backing to remain in power.
Critics say an accord would threaten the "rigorous impartiality" the British government must demonstrate when dealing with competing political views in Northern Ireland, as set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
British Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who will chair the Northern Ireland negotiations, has called a 29 June deadline to conclude the talks "final and immovable".
"Northern Ireland's political leaders now have this chance to take control and restore effective power-sharing government under the current assembly mandate," he told reporters ahead of Monday's talks.
"If they do not, the power to make decisions passes to others."
Failure to reach agreement would probably mean a return to an indefinite period of direct rule from London, since yet another local election would be unlikely to break the logjam between the main parties.
Outgoing Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny voiced concern in a phone call with May that the proposed deal between her Conservatives and the DUP could undermine the Northern Ireland peace process.
"The Taoiseach (prime minister) indicated his concern that nothing should happen to put the Good Friday Agreement at risk and the challenge that this agreement will bring," the Irish government said Sunday.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams also criticised the proposed Conservative-DUP deal and claimed it further undermined British claims of neutrality in Northern Ireland's affairs.
"The pro-unionist and partisan nature of this British government has contributed directly to the current deep political crisis in the North," he said in a statement.
"If the DUP don't prioritise the restoration of the institutions, and instead decide to become a prop for a dysfunctional minority government in London, then the parties should consider inviting an independent chairperson to oversee proceedings."
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland collapsed in January after Sinn Fein withdrew from the assembly citing DUP "arrogance" and demanding its leader Arlene Foster step aside pending an investigation into her role in a mismanaged green energy scheme that could cost taxpayers 1 billion pounds.
A subsequent election in March ended in stalemate and several deadlines to conclude a restoration of the institutions have since passed without an agreement.
Published Date: Jun 12, 2017 06:36 pm | Updated Date: Jun 12, 2017 06:36 pm