Last-ditch bid to stop direct rule for N Ireland

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DUP and Sinn Fein are set for fresh talks to try to head off direct rule as fears grow for health

The Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will meet party leaders in Belfast on Monday in a last-ditch effort to restore the Stormont government.

With no devolved Executive in place, direct rule from Westminster could become the only option for the first time in a decade.

Last week, Sinn Fein rejected Democratic Union Party leader Arlene Foster's proposal to resume power-sharing and address differences over culture and language in a parallel process.

Civil servants have been running Northern Ireland for six months but with no agreed budget and no ministers in office, health and education are in crisis.

lastditch-bid-to-stop-direct-rule-for-n-ireland photo 1 Image: James Brokenshire hopes to prevent direct rule

At St. Patrick's High School in Keady, County Armagh, they fear the political stalemate will have long-term consequences for education.

Principal Pat McGuckian explained: "In the last five years, we've made 10 redundancies in terms of teaching staff.

"This year, we've had to make support staff redundant. While making teaching staff redundant increases class sizes and puts more pressure on teachers, making support staff redundant is going to impact on the most vulnerable in our school.

"They're going to fall off the end educationally because there's no one to help them and keep them in school."

lastditch-bid-to-stop-direct-rule-for-n-ireland photo 2 Image: Civil servants have been running Stormont for six months

The devolved government had agreed a plan to reduce waiting lists in the health service - but with no health minister in office to implement it, doctors say lives could be lost.

Dr Grainne Doran, who chairs the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, explained: "The difficulty with elective care is that if your waiting time for that becomes excessively long, change can happen.

"That's one of the pressures that we as GPs are under, that we need to keep an eye on and monitor those patients. If there is a failure to escalate if change does occur, then that can in theory put lives at risk."

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The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein had been sharing power for almost 10 years when devolution collapsed in January over a botched renewable energy scheme costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

Ironically, Northern Ireland's political parties now have an extra £1.5bn to spend - the price Theresa May paid for the DUP's support in the Commons.

But without a devolved government, it could be direct rule ministers from London and not local ministers who decide how that cash is spent.

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