Belfast Telegraph

Clouds of gloom on a sunny day... and no blue sky thinking in sight

By Victoria Leonard

It was a picture perfect day outside Stormont yesterday as sunbathers and tourists enjoyed the unseasonably hot weather under cloud-free blue skies.

Unfortunately, the mood inside failed to match the idyllic surroundings.

The Great Hall was a hive of media activity as, one by one, the parties trooped down the stairs to blame each other, blame Secretary of State James Brokenshire, or blame the talks process.

The faces of the party leaders were as hard as the marble on the surrounding pillars.

Had you been watching proceedings on TV and accidentally pressed the 'mute' button, you would still have got the gist: there's little hope left in the last chance saloon.

First into the fray was former First Minister Arlene Foster.

Any vestiges of hope that her high-profile handshake with Michelle O'Neill at Martin McGuinness's funeral might signal a sea change proved unfounded.

With North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds at her right-hand, and flanked by three rows of DUP MLAs, she accused Sinn Fein of not being "in agreement-finding mode".

She also slammed Sinn Fein's non-support for Mr Brokenshire's chairing of the talks, saying that this had led to a "total lack of structure".

Declaring that her party would be meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss a way forward, Mrs Foster fired a thinly-veiled broadside at republicans, saying that "negotiations can only ever be successful when parties are prepared to be flexible in order to secure an outcome".

For the avoidance of doubt, she added: "This process did not fail because it ran out of time."

If Mrs Foster was on a war footing, Sinn Fein's Mrs O'Neill left onlookers in no doubt that she too was ready to do battle.

With party president Gerry Adams as her right-hand man, she assured those assembled that "Sinn Fein remains standing firm".

"We came at the negotiation with the right attitude, wanting to make the institutions work, wanting to deliver for all citizens," she insisted.

"Unfortunately the DUP retained their position in relation to blocking equality, delivering equality for citizens."

Mrs O'Neill claimed that the DUP hadn't approached the talks with "the right attitude" and that "the British Government didn't play their role." Calling for the delivery of equality issues, an Irish Language Act and legacy issues, she also declared that Sinn Fein would be "relaxed" about bringing in an outside, independent chair for the talks, a move that would effectively marginalise Mr Brokenshire.

Meanwhile, former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was flanked by heir apparent Robin Swann as he damningly described the talks process as a "complete shambles".

"An unelected civil servant is about to become arguably the most important man in Northern Ireland, taking over the purse-strings of our devolved government," he declared.

Mr Nesbitt queried why Mr Brokenshire had not called a "round table meeting" in the last three weeks, warning that this had left many parties in the dark.

"Some of the parties said there would be no return to the status quo and they were right, because we didn't hit the status quo in the talks over the last three weeks, they were much worse than previously and there was less regard for smaller parties and less attempts to make the process inclusive, and the Secretary of State has a question or two to answer in that regard," he said.

Mr Nesbitt's sentiments were echoed by Alliance leader Naomi Long.

She may have had a smaller entourage, but Mrs Long was no less strident in condemning what she called the "unthinkable" potential failure of "a project which has been 25 years of investment of time and energy and hope for this community".

As former party leader David Ford looked on, she made an impassioned plea for an extension to the talks deadline, saying that an election would "not resolve the problems" and that direct rule was "not a good option for Northern Ireland".

"We need devolution to work," she stated, conviction evident in every word.

"I don't want to give in to the counsel of despair." SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and his party colleagues were grim-faced as he also called for the Secretary of State to step aside in favour of an independent chairperson as part of a new process.

He also issued a rallying cry, calling for a power-sharing Executive that "isn't about dominating the other, it's about working together".

"So, let's refocus ourselves, let's have the space to do it, but let's not accept that this can't be done. This can be done, and this can be done quickly," he said.

It was left to Mr Brokenshire to hammer the final nail into the current talks' coffin as he belatedly emerged from Stormont House for his afternoon summing-up. His arrival coincided with a protest at Parliament Buildings in favour of an Irish Language Act, which resulted in the strains of activists's loudspeakers providing the backing track to his speech.

It was a surreal end to a sadly predictable day.

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