Belfast Telegraph

Answering Press questions could jeopardise power-sharing talks, says Karen Bradley

Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has defended her persistent refusal to answer questions from the Press saying it could jeopardise the restoration of government in Northern Ireland.

In delivering an update to the Commons on the current state of play in the talks, the minister said the opportunity for an agreement was narrowing, as she had written in Tuesday's Belfast Telegraph.

Although there has been no deadline given to the current talks process, Mrs Bradley suggested there could be no extension. MP Gavin Robinson had raised the prospect of an extension helping to pave the way to finding an agreement.  She refused to discuss the consequences of failure.

In August powers allowing civil servants to make decisions expire.

Following her statement, Mrs Bradley took questions from those MPs in the Commons - something she had persistently refused to do with the Press.

She said she was happy to engage with the Press and believed in Press freedom, but said she would continue to refuse to discuss matters surrounding the talks.

The Labour MP and acting chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Kate Hoey told Karen Bradley it looked bad when she does not answer questions and the "Foreign Secretary of the Republic of Ireland [Simon Coveney] answers questions for half an hour".

"I want to see devolution restored, that is my priority. I am not prepared to do anything that jeopardises that," Karen Bradley told MPs.

"Of course I am happy to speak to the Press and answer their questions. On this particular matter I don't think we gain anything by speculating and having an over analysis of answers."

Sammy Wilson went further saying her refusal to engage with the Press while Mr Coveney took a different approach gave the impression the talks were "driven by the Irish Republic and not in the hands of the UK Government".

"And that is in breach of the three-stranded approach there should be when it comes to these talks," he said.

It is important the parties have the space to discuss these issues to build trust. Karen Bradley

Mrs Bradley responded: "The more speculation in the Press and elsewhere about these matters the less chance we have of restoring government. That is the view I take.

"And I am not prepared to do anything that jeopardises the possibility of restoring government. It is a matter for other politicians as to the approach they take in terms of dealing with the Press.

"I have the utmost respect for the Press as the former culture secretary I was an advocate for Press freedom and the Press are very welcome to scrutinise and question me at length as they regularly do.

"But on these matters I am not prepared to do anything that makes it harder for his party and others to do what they want to do which is go back into government."

Mrs Bradley said "good progress" had been made in the talks which had been constructive, but there were issues to overcome which would require "give and take on both sides" and accommodation to broker agreement on what were "complex and sensitive issues".

"I am grateful with the constructive manner in which they have engaged with the process and with each other and hopeful collective leadership will continue through the next phase," she said.

"It is important the parties have the space to discuss these issues to build trust and relationships and find common ground and compromise."

The parties have been split into working groups dealing with five issues. Those being: programme for government; transparency and operation of the Executive; Petition of Concern reform; rights, language and identity; and improving the sustainability, stability and operation of the institutions.

Pressed by DUP MP Jim Shannon on how the secretary of state intended to improve the institutions to prevent one party blocking devolution, Mrs Bradley said it was up to the parties and her government would facilitate any change to legislation if that was needed.

The minister said the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry was a "stark warning" peace and stability was not put in jeopardy.

"I am under no illusions, the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve to see functioning political institutions up and running."

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