Belfast Telegraph

Stormont: All-party talks cancelled at 11th hour

Brokenshire chairmanship sore point for nationalists

By Noel McAdam

Plans for the first round table negotiation session at the Stormont talks to restore devolution have fallen apart.

The discussions have reached the midway point of the deadline to re-establish an Executive - but there has yet to be an all-party meeting.

DUP leader Arlene Foster revealed there had been a meeting involving party officials yesterday, but not politicians.

It is understood that both Sinn Fein and the SDLP objected to the round table session being chaired by Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who returned to the talks yesterday after being in London on Monday.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was unfortunate that the all-party talks were cancelled at the last minute.

He said he didn't want to make too much of it, and they were possibly called off because insufficient progress had been made.

"There should have been somebody here to chair all of this," he said, a reference to his call for an independent chairman other than the Secretary of State. "We're now halfway through the time available for these negotiations and there still hasn't been a full plenary meeting of all parties and both governments.

"There have been positive bilateral discussions and goodwill on all sides to negotiate a settlement that will deliver a return to government, but we now need to take things up a gear.

"It's time that we all got round the same table and started making firmer progress." A Sinn Fein source said that a move towards all-party talks should be seen as a sign of progress.

"No one reveals their hand at round table meetings," the source added.

"It is not where business is done.

"They are essentially a box-ticking exercise."

Mrs Foster said if there was a full plenary session, that would be co-chaired by Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, her party would attend. "There may be a round table for officials happening but in terms of the political people, we continue to have bilateral meetings, and in some cases trilateral," she added.

DUP negotiators including former ministers Simon Hamilton and Peter Weir also met Mr Flanagan yesterday to discuss the role of the Irish Government in relation to legacy issues such as inquests.

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the British Government had yet to show the right approach in the discussions.

"These talks are not about opening new negotiations, they are about implementing what all the parties signed up to in the Stormont House Agreement," she said.

"Things could move very quickly if there is a willingness, but to date the British Government has not had that attitude."

She stressed Sinn Fein would not accept immunity from prosecution for soldiers involved in killings during the Troubles.

"We are not interested in immunity or impunity for anyone," she insisted.

"That has been part of the problem here. We need to move forward and deal with the issues.

"We will not accept any immunity for British soldiers. Everyone has to be equal under the law.

"The legacy issue is something we need to see dealt with. We are having ongoing discussions, but very clearly what we need is movement."

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