Efforts intensified to restore Northern Ireland powersharing at Stormont
Leaders in Westminster and Dublin have agreed to make a new push.
Talks to restore Stormont powersharing are set to enter an intensified phase of face-to-face negotiations between party leaders, the UK and Irish governments have indicated.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said they will recommend to Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a new setpiece process gets under way at Stormont next week.
The move comes after the latest roundtable meeting of the governments and five main parties at Stormont House in Belfast.
Rainy day in Stormont, back in Belfast this morning to meet the SOSNI and political parties. Progress is possible, we will work hard with all sides to make it work! pic.twitter.com/JMEwyS3m6W— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) May 30, 2019
Mrs Bradley said: “I’ll be recommending that we now move into a very intensive period of talks at leadership level to make sure that we can address the issues that remain.
“I am positive that there is the right attitude and there is the right will there, but I think it would be wrong for me to do anything other than to be clear that there are still significant challenges that still remain.
“We will continue to work to deliver what the people of Northern Ireland rightly want and deserve and need, which is government in Stormont.”
Not that media were counting (we were!) but @simoncoveney 10 min press conference after latest Stormont talks was ten times longer than 60 second appearance of SoS Bradley. He took six media questions - she took none (again). pic.twitter.com/TbgQjz4CJa— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) May 30, 2019
Tanaiste Simon Coveney said there was “momentum” in the talks process.
“Certainly my recommendation to the Taoiseach will be that we should now intensify the discussions, make them much more direct and much more political for the next couple of weeks in an effort to try to turn what has been a good process into a series of decisions that can get a basis for the re-establishment of an executive – that’s ultimately what we are about,” he said.
“I think all the parties are up for that and I think certainly that was the indication today and there was some good blunt discussion, I think, around that because there needs to be an appetite here within the parties to make this work, because it’s going to involve compromise and it’s going to involve accommodation with each other.”
Mr Coveney said there were “awkward issues” to resolve.
“But they are not insurmountable,” he added.
“And when you consider some of the other issues that Northern Ireland faces and some of the decisions that are being taken that will impact directly on Northern Ireland in the autumn I think people need to get into perspective why it’s important that we have devolved institutions and Northern Ireland making decisions for itself as we move through the summer into a very unpredictable political period for British and Irish politics. This is important and I think the stakes are high.”
Stormont has been in cold storage for over two and half years due to a bitter standoff between Sinn Fein and its erstwhile partner in government, the DUP, on issues such as Irish language legislation and the region’s ban on same sex marriage.
The format of the most recent bid to revive Stormont has seen serving and retired senior civil servants chair several working groups focusing on the main sticking points.
The leaders of the main political parties were then meeting with the two governments on a weekly basis to review progress.
If Mrs May and Mr Varadkar accept the recommendations as laid out by Mrs Bradley and Mr Coveney, the process will step up a gear from next week, with engagement concentrated on leadership level.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said agreement was possible.
“Now we are really into the focused intense period and we are looking forward to engaging in that,” she said.
“I think the window is quite short because once we get to the summer we know that other pressures will come to bear so therefore we are up for trying to work intensively to try to find a way forward.
“We have duty now to come forward and to try to find a way forward.”
Mrs Foster expressed confidence that the talks could reach a different conclusion to previous failed initiatives.
“I think this is for real. I think people are very much engaged,” she said.
“Now we need to engage in a fulsome way on very critical issues, on issues that will be challenging, that will be difficult but if we are to form a genuine powersharing administration then we need to deal with those issues. But it has to be done in way that is balanced and in a way that is fair.”
After the roundtable meeting, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said it was now time to deliver.
“We believe there needs to be a step change in our engagement, there needs to be a determination across all of the parties and the two governments to ensure we resolve and deliver on the issues that will allow us to have inclusive good government,” she said.
Mrs McDonald said there was a need for a system of government that ensured that “agreements that are made are agreements that are delivered”.
“The truth is it’s broken promises that have delivered broken politics and we need to fix that and we believe that we can,” she said.
The republican leader said the meeting was positive and good humoured, describing a sense of “energy” around the process.
She said the outstanding disputes could be resolved in a relatively short period of time if there was the willingness, highlighting that much of the detail around the issues has already been hammered out.
“We have talked the hind legs off several donkeys on all of these issues, so it’s not as though we are breaking new ground here – this is now a question of political will and political leadership,” she said.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the “mood music” around the table was a lot better than he expected.
“There were no red lines throw out around the table, it was about how we get to the next step and what the next step actually looks like,” he said.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon cautioned that the “difficult issues” still remained unresolved.
“It is very clear, anyone who went round the doors over the last two elections will know, that the people of Northern Ireland right across the north want their politicians back to work,” she said.
“We are committing to doing that, that is our priority and it will remain our priority as we enter this next phase of negotiations.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the working groups had made some progress “stress testing” proposals.
“But I think all of us recognise that at this stage we need to move on to a different stage in this process where it’s actual direct negotiations with the party leaderships,” she said.
“We are hoping that will be the case next week.”
Mrs Long added: “I think people’s expectations have been raised by the recent round of talks and now it’s up to all of the parties to deliver.”