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Northern Ireland has weeks to restore executive in last ditch talks

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s main parties have one last opportunity in the coming weeks to restore devolved government and avoid a return to direct rule of the region from London for the first time in a decade, the British and Irish governments said on Thursday.

Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning executive and assembly since January 2017 when the nationalist party Sinn Fein withdrew from the coalition government, saying it was not being treated as an equal partner by its rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of uniting with the rest of Ireland and majority Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have jointly run the province since 2007 under the terms of a 1998 agreement that ended thirty years of conflict.

The DUP is supporting the Conservative Party minority government in Britain since June, which Sinn Fein says has made restoring government in Northern Ireland more difficult.

A new phase of political talks will begin on Jan. 24, Britain’s newly appointed Northern Ireland Minister Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said.

“Since my appointment as Secretary of State, what has quickly become clear to me is that time is short and one last opportunity to reach agreement remains,” Bradley, who took on the role 10 days ago, told a news conference.

“Without agreement, we will be facing a set of political consequences that will represent a significant setback to the progress that has been made since the signing of the Belfast Agreement.”

Both she and Coveney said the parties had weeks, rather than months to reach agreement. Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill said she understood that the timeframe was just two weeks.

Bradley will update the British parliament on progress on Feb 7.

London already had to step in last year and set a budget for Northern Ireland and many in the province fear direct rule would further destabilise the delicate political balance between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.

The absence of an executive in the province has also limited its say in Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union that are set to have a bigger impact on Northern Ireland than on any other part of the United Kingdom.

Previous bilateral talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed to meet a number of deadlines to reach agreement.

Disagreement remains on a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, which remains illegal in Northern Ireland despite being legal in the rest of Britain and Ireland, rights for Irish language speakers and funding for inquests into deaths linked to the conflict.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg