Westminster involvement in Northern Ireland’s governance is now “inevitable” following the breakdown of power-sharing talks, according to a former Cabinet minister.
Theresa Villiers, who was Northern Ireland secretary between 2012 and 2016, admitted the UK Parliament will need to set a budget for local authorities.
It comes after the latest round of negotiations between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, aimed at restoring Northern Ireland’s executive at Stormont, failed to reach a deal.
DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed on Wednesday there is “no current prospect” of discussions with Sinn Fein leading to the re-establishment of Northern Ireland’s government.
The DUP, who prop up the minority Conservative government at Westminster, have also called the Prime Minister’s visit to Belfast on Monday as a “distraction” during power-sharing talks.
Mrs Foster has insisted it is now “incumbent” on Westminster to begin direct rule in the continued absence of a devolved administration.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved more than a year ago after an initial row between the parties over an energy scheme.
Although Ms Villiers agreed MPs in London will need to set a budget for Northern Ireland, she urged both the DUP and Sinn Fein to carry on talking.
She told Sky News: “I hope that the immediate next move is that the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein will keep talking to one another, to the Northern Ireland Secretary and that attempts to reach an accommodation will carry on.
“But also it looks inevitable that there will need to be Westminster legislation to set a budget and sort out various other key issues because time has run out.
“We need a budget for the Northern Ireland authorities and, obviously, at the moment I’m afraid we’re not going to get it through a re-establishment of the devolved executive.”
Mrs Foster blamed a dispute over Irish language legislation for Wednesday’s breakdown in negotiations, with Sinn Fein wanting standalone laws to protect speakers.
But the DUP will only consider legislation that also incorporates other cultures, such as Ulster Scots.
Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, claimed her party had “stretched” themselves and had “reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP” before they collapsed the talks.
Ms Villiers claimed “there is a way to deliver” a solution that suits both sides, adding: “I don’t think the parties are a million miles away from delivering that legislation that Sinn Fein really wants.
“But it has to be in a form that is seen to be fair to the different culture and traditions in Northern Ireland.”
The Tory former minister also defended Theresa May amid criticism of the PM’s direct involvement in talks earlier this week.
It has been suggested the DUP even advised Mrs May not to visit Belfast on Monday, ahead of her trip.
But Ms Villiers insisted the success of failure of negotiations “ultimately depends on Northern Ireland’s leaders and in particular its two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein”.
“A succession of Prime Ministers have worked hard to deliver agreements but there’s only so much they can do, ultimately it is down to Northern Ireland’s leaders,” she added.
“I’m sure the Prime Minister’s visit will have been helpful but this is a very, very difficult set of circumstances and this is a very sensitive issue.”
Sinn Fein is now expected to outline the party’s next move after the collapse of talks.
Karen Bradley, the UK Government’s current Northern Ireland Secretary, said negotiations had made “substantive progress”, but admitted “it appears that this phase of talks is now at an end”.
She added “challenging decisions” will now need to be taken in London.