Day two of restored Stormont talks ‘slow and frustrating’
Political parties were continuing to work towards finding a way to bring the administration back into action.
Day two of resumed talks to restore powersharing at Stormont have been described as “slow and frustrating” as optimism that a deal can be reached in the next few days declines.
Political parties were continuing to work towards finding a way to bring the Stormont administration back into action on Friday, with a number of meetings between different parties and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill announced that “clearly” there would be an Irish Language Act in any deal to restore the Executive, one of the major sticking points in previous negotiations.
“Clearly there will be an Irish Language Act as part of a deal but what we need to see is a package of measures that allows public confidence to be generated again in our ability to deliver good politics,” Ms O’Neill said.
“What success looks like to me is, yes, there will be an Irish Language Act and, yes, there will be a package of measures that looks at a range of issues.”
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) January 3, 2020
DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to be drawn on whether or not there would be a standalone Irish Language Act in any deal to restore the institutions.
“It appears that Michelle continues to reiterate her red lines, I would much prefer to look for common ground in relation to where we’re going for the Executive,” she said.
“I want a fair and balanced deal that respects everyone’s identity in Northern Ireland.”
Ms Foster added that “if we are able to get an Executive up and running again”, they are prioritising health, education, job creation and funding.
Finding consensus on legislative protections for Irish language speakers is key to unlocking the deadline.
Parties are also at odds on proposals to reform a contentious cross-community voting mechanism in the Assembly – the petition of concern.
On Friday, members of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (CnG) were left disappointed after a scheduled meeting with Mr Smith was postponed with 10 minutes’ notice.
I hope that at some stage the DUP will come on to the same ground as the rest of us in terms of wanting to make this Assembly and Executive work Michelle O'Neill
The group said they were “extremely disappointed” in Mr Smith’s decision to cancel and had offered to meet with him in the next few days, but had not had a response.
There were also indications that there was continued disagreement within the powersharing talks between the DUP and the four other main parties on the petition-of-concern issue.
Ms O’Neill said: “There’s been positive work done across four parties in the main around some of the issues around the petition of concern, we have common ground in four parties and I hope that at some stage the DUP will come on to the same ground as the rest of us in terms of wanting to make this Assembly and Executive work.”
Kellie Armstrong, from the Alliance Party, said: “Today has been a slow and frustrating day, but it’s still a day where we are still talking and still trying to come to an agreed conclusion.
“While the governments may be frustrated with us, we’re frustrated with them and with each other, but we’re not fighting, we’re looking at detail.
“We’re keeping going, there have been some positive and proactive conversations happening but we’re just not there yet.”
It is understood that the Secretary of State is not yet prepared to release any papers from the two governments on what a deal could look like and it may be Tuesday or Wednesday before parties have a chance to scrutinise any documents.
The UUP leader said on Friday he did not want to give any false optimism over achieving a deal for Northern Ireland in the near future.
“We are into another day of intensive talks, very much concentrating on the programme for government,” party leader Steven Aiken said after a meeting with Mr Smith.
“We must get Northern Ireland working again and we must concentrate on those issues to get Northern Ireland back up and running.
There is a possibility of us achieving a deal but right now we need to concentrate on getting these substantial issues dealt with Steven Aiken, UUP
“Quite frankly, I don’t know where we are.
“There is a possibility of us achieving a deal but right now we need to concentrate on getting these substantial issues dealt with, we need accountable, responsible government going forward, there has got to be change.
“At this present moment in time I’m not going to give any false optimism, I would like to see there being a deal.”
Three years on from the collapse of the devolved government, the Stormont parties have until a January 13 deadline to strike a deal to revive the institutions.
On that date, legislation to give civil servants additional powers to run Northern Ireland’s struggling public services expires and Mr Smith will assume a legal obligation to call a snap Assembly election.