Optimism over restoration of Northern Ireland Executive as business chiefs meet DUP and Sinn Fein
A senior business leader has voiced optimism that the Assembly and Executive will return after urgent meetings with the two main parties at Stormont.
Business leaders were invited to Parliament Buildings yesterday - the day after the talks to restore devolved government were paused for Easter. The organisations received invitations to briefings by both Sinn Fein and the DUP - held separately.
The surprise invites - only issued on Wednesday evening - came after a letter signed by 19 business and civic organisations earlier this week which urged the five main Assembly parties to reach an agreement.
The open letter, delivered to Parliament Buildings on Tuesday, called on politicians to put aside their differences.
After the meetings yesterday Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said it was a very useful engagement "on the back of our letter".
"We are very keen to meet with the other three parties. I came away to some degree encouraged. Both parties said they wanted to see a deal and devolution restored."
Mr Roberts said the business representatives wasted no time in putting their message across at the meetings.
"We are faced now with Brexit, the biggest constitutional change since the Second World War and we have no ministers and no government in place," he said.
"Apart from having no voice in the process, what message does that send to the rest of the world?"
Mr Roberts said the prospect of sleepwalking back into Direct Rule was unthinkable because, while devolution had its difficulties and flaws, local ministers could "get things done", including rates reforms to help businesses and new planning legislation to protect town centres.
"Devolution is not perfect but it is a lot better than having unelected, unaccountable ministers from outside," he added.
After the meetings, DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds said they shared the frustration of the business and civic society representatives about the need for a functioning Executive.
In a statement, they said: "This was a very positive and constructive meeting with representatives from the business community. Having both served as Enterprise Ministers in the Executive we know how important devolution is to growing our economy.
"We share the frustration felt by many within the business community and beyond about the need to have a functioning Executive to act on the issues of importance for our economy.
"The DUP did not lay down any red lines to the restoration of devolution and we would have liked to see an Executive back up and running immediately."
But Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds also repeated their warnings that new demands had been brought into the negotiations.
"The introduction of new demands to the talks process is having a direct impact on people right across Northern Ireland, including the business community," they said. "All parties must make it clear that their top priorities are areas such as health, education and the economy and they will not put narrow party demands ahead of these key issues."
Former Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy said his party also shared the business community's demand "for a stable Executive that delivers for all its citizens".
"The surest route to political stability is an Executive that respects diversity, treats all of its citizens equally, and conducts itself with integrity. This is what Sinn Fein are working for in the political talks," he said.
"An Executive that disrespects the Irish identity, denies equal marriage and is constantly undermined by financial scandals will not provide stable or effective government. We want to see good government based on the principles of equality, integrity and respect."