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Crunch time in N. Ireland power-sharing talks

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London (AFP)

Northern Ireland's squabbling politicians were in crunch talks Tuesday to form a government, a day after Prime Minister Theresa May promised £1 billion for the province in a deal to keep her in power.

If the feuding main parties cannot agree to form a semi-autonomous government in Belfast by 4:00pm (1500 GMT) Thursday, then the province will instead be fully governed from London.

"Time to achieve a deal is running out and everybody is working intensively to achieve that agreement," May's spokesman said.

Practically, an agreement would need to be concluded by the end of Wednesday, to give the parties time to find ministers ahead of Thursday's nomination session.

The power-sharing executive is the cornerstone of a peace process that ended three decades of violent conflict, mainly between Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British unionists.

A collapse of trust led to a March 2 snap election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has powers over matters such as health, education, justice and the province's economy.

The conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) finished narrowly ahead of socialists Sinn Fein.

- 'Heavy price' of failure -

Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd, a former education minister, said he was unsure whether a deal could be struck.

"When there is talking going on there is always hope," he told BBC radio.

Sinn Fein insist DUP leader Arlene Foster cannot return as first minister, and they want greater recognition of the Irish language, which the 2011 census found four percent in Northern Ireland could speak, read and write.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said they had no red lines but "if Sinn Fein continue to mess about I think they will pay a heavy price."

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who is facilitating the talks, said the parties needed to find a resolution.

"I believe that that can be done but the parties will need to look beyond what divides them," he said.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said both the DUP and Sinn Fein "need to be willing to move towards each other's position to try and accommodate each other".

May's Conservatives struck a deal with the DUP on Monday that will afford her party a slim majority in the British parliament.

The deal was slammed by opposition parties as political bribery, amid concerns about its impact on the province's delicate peace process.

Under the agreement, Northern Ireland will receive an extra £1.0 billion (1.1 billion euros, $1.3 billion) from the state over two years.

The DUP said it would back the government in any confidence votes and to pass budgets, as well as supporting it on Brexit-related legislation.

The money would be made available to Northern Ireland even if the province is returned to direct rule from London, although local parties would not be able to decide how it is allocated.

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