Sinn Fein says Belfast power-sharing must end for election

DUBLIN (AP) — Talks aimed at preventing the collapse of Northern Ireland’s unity government faced resistance Wednesday from the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein, who insisted that the government cannot be saved and an early election must be held.

British officials appealed to Sinn Fein to fill their party’s top post in the coalition following this week’s surprise resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as government co-leader.

But after meeting Britain’s Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire , on Wednesday at the Stormont government complex in Belfast, Sinn Fein lawmakers stressed that power-sharing must end Monday because of a long list of unresolved disputes. Power-sharing rules require Brokenshire to dissolve the Northern Ireland Assembly if Sinn Fein fails to fill McGuinness’ vacant position by then.

“What needs to happen next is an election. We are not interested in trying to get into negotiations now,” Michelle O’Neill, the government health minister from Sinn Fein, said after the meeting.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed for Sinn Fein leaders to open talks with their Protestant power-sharing partners, the Democratic Unionist Party led by First Minister Arlene Foster , who has repeatedly butted heads with Sinn Fein during her first year leading the government.

“We are obviously treating this with the utmost seriousness,” said May, who discussed the crisis by telephone with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Forging a coalition between Northern Ireland’s British Protestant majority and its Irish Catholic minority was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998, which sought to end three decades of violence that claimed nearly 3,700 lives.

The first coalition led by moderates faced incessant pressure from extremists and fell in 2002. But five years later the two opposite sides — Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists — forged their own pact.

A decade later, peace is incomplete and fragile. Once-daily bloodshed has slowed to a trickle as most outlawed paramilitary groups stick to 1990s cease-fires. But many working-class districts remain divided by high walls dubbed “peace lines” separating Catholic and Protestant turf. IRA splinter groups pose a deadly threat to police, who still patrol some areas in armored vehicles and flak jackets.