Belfast Telegraph

Stormont deal was close, insists Sugden as Washington urges parties to keep talks alive

By Ivan Little and Noel McAdam

Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden has said she doesn’t believe that the DUP and Sinn Fein were far away from doing a deal on a return to power-sharing before the suspension of the Stormont talks until the autumn.

The Independent MLA was speaking as the US State Department urged the DUP and Sinn Fein to keep talking.

Ms Sugden said she found it frustrating that the talks hadn’t led to a return of the Assembly.

“It is depressing,” she said while at the Irish Open golf tournament in Portstewart .

“But there are a number of individuals at Stormont who are stalling the process and I believe it would take very little to get it over the line, to get a government up and running.

“That said, the DUP and Sinn Fein need to work on that relationship, because if we are able to move forward they will be in government together.”

However, Ms Sugden added: “I don’t think it is unhelpful that we are having this break, particularly at the time of year that it is at. But I do think there really does need to be a focus when we get back in September. Something needs to be done.

“It’s too long in the tooth now to be telling people that they haven’t been able to get a decision on whatever issue it is.”

Last night, the US State Department issued a statement urging the parties to “continue their discussions with the aim of forming an effective, responsive, and representative government as soon as possible”.

“All of Northern Ireland’s political leaders share a collective responsibility to build on the political and economic progress made since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and to construct a better, shared future for all of Northern Ireland’s citizens,” it said.

“The United States will continue to work with all parties in Northern Ireland as well as the UK and Irish governments to help facilitate the restoration of Northern Ireland’s regional government.”

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Secretary is to direct the allocation of some Stormont finances as the political stalemate continues. Civil servants are now in charge of departments, but a lack of an agreed budget is restricting their ability to spend.

According to government sources, James Brokenshire is in discussions with the Treasury over the redistribution of around £120m of Northern Ireland’s £10bn block grant. It is a step short of intervening to impose a formal budget.

If the impasse continues, Mr Brokenshire will face pressure to legislate for a Stormont budget at Westminster in the autumn.

The in-year reallocation of funds would usually fall to Executive ministers.

Civil servants currently only have access to 75% of the block grant. That will increase to 95% at the end of July.

Only when a budget is passed will departments be able to spend the full Treasury allocation.

Health and education are expected to be among Mr Brokenshire’s priorities when he distributes the money.

A number of bilateral meetings have been agreed for next week following the failure to reach a deal. But sources have indicated the substantive negotiations are unlikely to get under way until September.

No agreed date has been pencilled in, but it is thought the date for the end of the Assembly summer recess — September 11 — is in mind. 

Alliance said it had arranged meetings with a number of other parties for early next week. But it said there was no sign of “structured” talks for the foreseeable future. A spokesman said: “Alliance is willing to continue talking throughout the summer months and beyond, as we believe it is still possible to reach a resolution in the process.”

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