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'Marginal' differences can be overcome, says Poots as new Assembly talks begin

A roundtable meeting at Stormont yesterday aimed at breaking the deadlock
A roundtable meeting at Stormont yesterday aimed at breaking the deadlock

By Michael McHugh

Differences between Northern Ireland's political parties are marginal, a senior DUP politician said last night.

Edwin Poots claimed there was a good spirit and a desire to restore the devolved Assembly straight away.

The powersharing institutions have been in deep freeze for nearly three years following a fallout between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the RHI scandal.

Mr Poots said: "The differences are on the margins. The key issue for us is health. (That is our) number one priority."

Thousands of nurses took unprecedented strike action over pay and conditions yesterday.

A special health summit of political leaders is due to be held later today.

A roundtable meeting involving all five of the main Stormont parties took place yesterday.

Endless rounds of negotiations have failed to produce a breakthrough, with issues such as the place of the Irish language still in dispute.

The DUP and Sinn Fein suffered significant losses in the general election and the Alliance Party built on gains seen in recent years.

The parties face an Assembly poll in the new year with an increasingly disillusioned public if talks led by the British and Irish governments fail.

Mr Poots said considerable work remained to be done but he was seeking a "fair and balanced" deal.

He added: "We will do our utmost to get a sensible deal, a good deal for everyone."

Mr Poots also stressed it was Stormont's responsibility to deal with the nurses' pay issue. "Goodwill exists, which is critically important to actually getting a deal. Let us build on that goodwill that exists," the DUP MLA stressed.

"The public want us to get back to business. We need to ensure a fair and balanced deal. A one-sided deal will not work."

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said the NHS was an emergency case which should be addressed immediately. He added: "I cannot see us getting a deal until the new year, if there is going to be a deal. We do need to get a deal and an agreement and then move on."

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said the Government could intervene to resolve the health crisis.

"A solution is available which would end the dispute," she told reporters.

"(However), the British Secretary of State is holding back on this in a cynical attempt to pressurise the political parties.

"The attempt to exploit the suffering of patients as political leverage in the talks is disgraceful."

She said Northern Ireland Secretary of State and the Conservative Government were responsible for the crisis in the health service, which she blamed on a decade of Tory-inspired austerity that had torn up the service's finances.

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