Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists have held out the possibility of powersharing talks being resurrected in the future after the acrimonious collapse of negotiations.
Both parties have refused to reveal details of the mooted deal that went up in smoke on Ash Wednesday, claiming that confidentiality is still required because the process could potentially be revived at some stage.
Efforts to restore devolution following a 13-month impasse currently lie in tatters after the angry Valentine’s Day break-up, when the DUP unexpectedly pulled the plug on talks amid a row over the Irish language.
The DUP has rejected the claims, insisting no final deal was on the table.
Sinn Fein has said it will set out a “fulsome” response to the latest developments after meeting with the UK and Irish Governments on Thursday.
Party negotiator Conor Murphy said: “If there’s any possibility, however remote, of getting back to this engagement then we are obliged to try and explore that and we will do that and we will engage with the governments and the other parties in the coming period.”
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: “I think where the future has to lie is in trying to pick up the pieces and see if agreement is doable.”
The row boils down to a row over the presentation of new laws to protect Irish language speakers. Sinn Fein want a stand-alone Irish Language Act; the DUP are prepared to legislate for Irish speakers but only as part of wider legislation that incorporates the Ulster Scots culture, and not via a free-standing Irish Language Act.
This was seen as a potential way to bridge the divide, as Sinn Fein could have claimed to have secured a separate Irish Language Act but the DUP could have cited that the legislation was intrinsically linked to the broader Culture and Respect Act, so was therefore not free-standing.
Definite details have not been published and both parties are facing mounting calls to show their hands to the public.
Declining to do so, they contend that revealing details could jeopardise any future talks.
Mr Murphy told Radio Ulster that “good faith” that has existed during the negotiations “evaporated” with the DUP move.
“We had reached an accommodation, everyone involved in the process understood that, and the DUP failed to close the deal in relation to that and abruptly called a halt to proceedings yesterday,” he said.
Civil servants have been running Northern Ireland’s rudderless public services since the last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded last January in a row over a botched green energy scheme.
That rift subsequently widened to take in more long-standing disputes over language, social issues and the legacy of the Troubles.
Mr Campbell said the DUP called a halt to talks due to the need to pass a budget for the next financial year. He said that decision had to be taken next week and, given a deal was not possible at Stormont, it therefore had to be tabled by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley at Westminster.
He told BBC Radio Ulster: “How irresponsible would it be for any political party to allow talks to continue with those unresolved issues, that we all knew were there, that we all knew had to be closed, how irresponsible would it have been to continue that into next week in the knowledge that a budget that to be passed. That’s why we had to take the responsible decision yesterday to get a budget so that those services can be maintained.”
The parties are also at loggerheads on how Northern Ireland should be governed if talks ultimately fail.
The DUP wants the UK Government to reintroduce direct rule. Sinn Fein insists the Irish Government must have a key role in the region if Stormont does not return. They want that to be actioned through the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference – a peace process structure aimed at fostering cross-border co-operation between the governments.
As it stands Mrs Bradley is under a legal obligation to call another snap election in Northern Ireland but few observers see the merit in such an option, given it would likely return the same political make-up and not resolve any of the outstanding issues.
Ireland’s deputy premier, Simon Coveney, said the collapse of negotiations was “hugely disappointing” and insisted there was “no appetite” for a return to direct rule.
He said he understood an accommodation on the key disputes was close and the parties were just hammering out how the deal would be presented.
“We didn’t see a final text from the two parties but we had a clear understanding of where this was going,” Mr Coveney told RTE Radio One.
“There was a recognition that the Irish language needed to be legislated for in Northern Ireland but that should happen in the context of a basket of legislation that also dealt with issues like Ulster Scots and a broad recognition of culture and language diversity in Northern Ireland.”