By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) - The British and Irish governments are to launch a new round of talks between Northern Ireland's main parties next week in a bid to re-establish devolved government and avoid a return to direct rule of the region from London for the first time in a decade.
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 mainly 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.
A new phase of political talks will begin on Wednesday Jan. 24 to re-establish a devolved executive, a British government official said ahead of an expected announcement by Britain and Ireland, which have jointly sponsored several rounds of talks.
Previous bilateral talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed to meet a number of deadlines to reach agreement.
Britain's newly appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will set out the plans for "short, intensive multi-party talks" between Northern Ireland's five main political parties, the official said.
The talks represented "one last opportunity to reach agreement," Bradley will say, according to part of her speech seen by Reuters.
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.
The DUP has agreed to support the Conservative Party minority government in Britain since June, which Sinn Fein says has made restoring government in Northern Ireland more difficult.
(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Peter Graff)