Belfast Telegraph

Alliance says deal is doable but others are not so optimistic

By Suzanne Breen

Talks to save power-sharing at Stormont are set to intensify next week, with senior political sources insisting that a deal remains within reach.

Party insiders said they could see an agreement taking shape on an Irish Language Act, reforming the petition of concern mechanism, and even the thorny issue of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

On the question of Arlene Foster stepping aside as First Minister, sources said that despite the apparently conflicting positions of the DUP and Sinn Fein, a compromise was still possible.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson yesterday branded Sinn Fein's demand that Mrs Foster step aside as "unreasonable".

He told the BBC that, if republicans stuck to their position, it would be impossible to form an Executive, and he predicted that Sinn Fein would "relent".

Talks insiders last night suggested a choreography could be arranged to side-step the issue with Sinn Fein technically not supporting Mrs Foster's nomination as First Minister in the chamber - but still nominating Michelle O'Neill as Deputy First Minister.

Another political source suggested that the DUP leader may be open to standing aside as First Minister for a "token period" of a few months but not for a year - which is how long the RHI public inquiry will likely take to conclude.

Stormont sources foresaw a deal involving an Irish Language Act with capped costs, and the petition of concern being used in future only to prevent discrimination against one community, and not as a veto on issues like same-sex marriage.

They believe that agreement on the past would involve British Government funding for legacy inquests. The DUP would secure a possible pension for victims and there would be an introduction of the Military Covenant to Northern Ireland, allowing Armed Forces veterans to secure priority medical treatment.

The negotiations, which are effectively suspended for St Patrick's weekend, will resume on Monday.

The parties have a week to reach a deal or they run the risk of Secretary of State James Brokenshire calling another snap Assembly election, or reintroducing direct rule.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "A deal is entirely doable within a week.

"There is nothing on the table that can't be cracked by Monday, March 27, if people put their minds to it.

"The hothouse talks that produced both the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements made substantial progress in an even shorter period of time."

However, Mr Farry expressed concerns about the "bona fides" of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"Alliance questions whether the two main parties are serious about a speedy resolution of working devolution or whether, for different reasons, they both may see a tactical advantage in playing a longer game.

"We strongly urge them to put the interests of Northern Ireland before their narrow party interests," he added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged all the parties to intensify their efforts to reach a deal.

"We are making progress but we need to get an agreement over the line in the time allowed," he said.

"There is a window of opportunity which we need to seize. The public elected us to form a government and we have a duty to do all we can to save devolution and avoid returning to direct rule."

Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott was pessimistic about the chances of an imminent deal.

"Talks so far have focused on legacy and Irish language matters. The UUP has raised the issue of parades and the definition of a victim," he said.

"I don't see any major breakthrough in the talks in the short-term.

"I've no idea whether Sinn Fein are determined that Arlene Foster step aside or if they will climb down from that position if offered other things in return."

TUV leader Jim Allister predicted that any deal would be a "sticking plaster solution".

He said: "Any new agreement will have the same fate as the last one.

"We would be far better facing the reality that this system of government doesn't work and accepting the inevitability of direct rule.

"Mandatory coalition means continuing failure."

Belfast Telegraph

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