Belfast Telegraph

SDLP calls on London and Dublin to break logjam if new talks wither on vine

By Suzanne Breen

Secretary of State James Brokenshire will today meet the political parties before Sinn Fein and the DUP head off for intensive negotiations aimed at restoring power-sharing at Stormont.

Political sources last night dismissed speculation that Theresa May would fly into Northern Ireland this week to join the discussions.

But they said that bilateral talks between the parties would continue with hopes that further progress can be made in building relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Stormont insiders want a more low-key approach than previous discussions when both parties would constantly come out to brief the media on developments.

Multilateral talks are unlikely to happen until next week at the earliest, sources said.

While the current round of negotiations was initially shrouded in pessimism, a thawing of relations emerged last week during private discussions between Sinn Fein and the DUP. The chances of a deal are said to have risen from "zero to 50-50".

An Irish Language Act remains the major stumbling block to an agreement to restoring the Executive.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood last night called on London and Dublin to actively intervene if a deal to get the devolved institutions back up and running isn't reached this week.

In the event of failure to make progress, Mr Eastwood (below) said the two governments should set out their own proposals to break the deadlock.

The SDLP leader said it was a welcome change that the DUP and Sinn Fein "have called a ceasefire on megaphone diplomacy and have actually got down to the business of serious engagement".

But he expressed doubts about how genuine they were.

"As formal talks recommence, the question remains whether this is the beginning of positive choreography to finally do the deal or if it is merely positive choreography to avoid blame if the process collapses once more," he said.

"As crises build in our health and education services, the SDLP does not believe it is credible or sustainable to continue to leave the success or failure of this process solely in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin. 

"We acknowledge that these parties have the big mandates from the electorate but they do not have a mandate to hold the North to ransom in a position of permanent stalemate," he stated.

"I am therefore proposing that if it becomes clear that the DUP and Sinn Fein are incapable of getting a deal over the line, both governments should publicly place their own joint proposal on the table.

"This joint proposal would represent their joint view on what they believe to be a fair deal and compromise for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Eastwood said the British and Irish Governments should then publicly challenge all the parties to sign up to, or reject, their proposal. 

"This intervention by the co-guarantors of our political agreements would also bring focus to the real priority of finally getting a government formed which can begin to tackle hospital waiting lists, school budget cuts and the growing numbers of families without a home," he added.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd said that if the Executive gets up and running again it cannot rely on the British Government acting in the best interests of people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at a meeting of the British Irish Association in Cambridge on Saturday, he commented: "Any Executive should work with the Irish and Scottish Governments as well as the Welsh Executive to counter-balance the reckless Tory Brexit agenda. 

"Experience has shown the British Government have shown scant regard to the needs of the devolved institutions.

"A new approach will be needed to defend our society against Brexit."

Speaking in New York, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that while he wasn't naïve about the challenges facing the parties, he was hopeful that the current crisis could be ended and the political institutions restored "on the basis of equality and respect".

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