Belfast Telegraph

Plans being made to 'park' Stormont talks until after Easter

By Noel McAdam

Preparations appear to be under way for a 'soft landing' of the Stormont talks to restore devolution, according to senior political sources.

The London and Dublin Governments seem to have been persuaded that the lack of a breakthrough - after more than a month of negotiations - should not be allowed to turn into a total break down of talks.

But even though three days remain until the effective make-or-break deadline of Good Friday, most of the five parties involved admit both privately and publicly that agreement by then is unlikely.

A final push in the current phase may be made over the next 72 hours but, with the prospects of a comprehensive deal being struck looking slight, it seems the talks will be 'parked' for a period, at least until after the Easter holidays.

Key areas of contention, on which it appears only limited progress has been made since last month's election, are provisions for an Irish language act, how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles, a Northern Ireland-specific Bill of Rights and agreeing a joint approach to the negotiations on Brexit.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams argued there has not been sufficient engagement to ensure talks could succeed at present.

In a briefing for journalists away from the broadcast cameras, Mr Adams blamed the DUP who he said had not even remained in contact with his party over last weekend.

The DUP had to decide, he said, if they want to be part of a "rights-based society" in relation to an Irish language act but also same-sex marriage - rejected five times by the Assembly.

The Sinn Fein leader also questioned the main unionist party's level of engagement in negotiations to save devolution, claiming they had only met his party for bilateral leadership talks twice in four days.

"The DUP are ignoring the message from the recent election where people voted in large numbers for credible political institutions built on equality and respect and which have integrity at their core," he added.

Mr Adams also hinted it was possible that talks on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, which includes a number of inquests delayed by more than 40 years, could end up taking place between his party and the British Government.

That would again mean leaving the 'legacy' issues out of a deal - as they were left out of the so-called Fresh Start deal in the autumn of 2015 - but Mr Adams said it was not a road he would prefer to go down.

"We are quite relaxed about the British Secretary of State allowing a little bit of extra time for things to be sorted," he said.

"We have to be patient and we have to be resolute and we have to be determined and there is whatever limited time there is left to get this sorted, and that's why we say it's decision-making time."

Sinn Fein also insisted a return to direct rule is not an option and the Government must instead trigger fresh elections - which would be the third Assembly contest inside a year.

Mr Adams' claims were rejected by DUP negotiator Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. "I am afraid this is more evidence of Sinn Fein trying to cover their back and trying to prepare the way for yet another walk-out come Friday," said the Lagan Valley MP.

"I predict that Sinn Fein will walk away yet again - just as they did two weeks ago, just as they did in January. They are rapidly becoming the party that walks out on the other parties.

"When it comes to commitment, we are there, we are ready to form a government, we are engaging with Sinn Fein and the other parties on all of the issues, we are there every day."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has said there is no appetite for a fresh election or for the introduction of direct rule - although neither has been entirely ruled out.

The Northern Ireland Office yesterday said Mr Brokenshire had reiterated that "if no agreement is reached following the Easter Parliamentary recess (which ends next Tuesday) then he would seek to bring forward legislation to set a regional rate to enable collection of the rates to go ahead, and take steps to provide further assurance around the budget for Northern Ireland."

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