Belfast Telegraph

There's an appetite for doing business at talks: Irish minister Flanagan

By Noel McAdam

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan has said he senses "an appetite for doing business" at Stormont.

Mr Flanagan, who is expected to join negotiations to restore devolution in the next 24 hours, said there was an obligation on the parties to find a solution. He repeated his view that a return to direct rule was unacceptable.

His comments came amid signs that the DUP and Sinn Fein are beginning to tackle the impasse.

Yesterday a DUP group met a Sinn Fein delegation - with both agreeing to meet again today.

It is understood the DUP team included leader Arlene Foster and the Sinn Fein group was led by Gerry Adams, but there was no detail on their discussions.

Their meeting came after each of the five main parties, including the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance, held separate talks with Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

Mr Flanagan said: "I was encouraged by my engagement yesterday with political leaders. I sense an appetite for doing business.

"We will assist and influence and encourage, but ultimately there is an obligation on the parties to make this work."

Mr Flanagan said the issues surrounding Brexit added urgency to the talks.

He added: "There is a greater degree of urgency - or there is a real degree of urgency - on the matter of Brexit.

"It's expected that the Article 50 notice will be served in the next few weeks.

"It's important that there be a Northern Ireland voice. The best voice for Northern Ireland will be coming from the Executive.

"So I'm not looking beyond the three weeks. I acknowledge that there are differences between the parties, but if all sides show a degree of political will, a satisfactory conclusion - or a working Executive and Assembly - can be arranged."

He said it was premature to talk about extension of times.

"In relation to direct rule, such a scenario is unacceptable to the Irish government," he added.

"Actually, the legal position is such that after a period of three weeks, fresh elections will be a likelihood, but I'm not looking beyond the three-week period."

His comments came as it was confirmed the first meeting of the new Assembly - at which MLAs will be formally enrolled and attempt to elect a Speaker -will be at 4pm next Monday.

That will then start the clock ticking on a fortnight for negotiations before a new Executive should be in place by March 27 - after which another election could be on the cards.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that while his party would negotiate with anybody, Arlene Foster could not be nominated as First Minister whilst the current "cloud of scandal continues".

He also attempted to send out a positive message to unionists, insisting: "We're not out to destroy your culture or identity, we're out to work with you."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said a period of uncertainty lay ahead.

He said that while Mr Brokenshire had a major role to play in the way forward, he had to take more care to be impartial.

"At times the UK Government have been, and indeed the Conservative Party, too close to the perspective of the DUP rather than actually acting as an impartial broker between the parties," Mr Farry added.

But a downbeat Mr Adams warned it appeared the Government in London is determined to repeat past mistakes - and also hit out at the Irish government.

"I am concerned that the Irish government is turning a blind eye to the belligerent approach of the British government," he said. "This is totally unacceptable. The Irish government is a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and other agreements.

"The Taoiseach [Enda Kenny]needs to fulfil this duty."

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