Belfast Telegraph

Foster and O'Neill lay down their markers as Northern Ireland political talks resume

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has said that fresh talks to restore power-sharing should not be about "party political shopping lists", and, if they fail, direct rule ministers must be appointed.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph as negotiations involving the two Governments and Northern Ireland's five main parties begin at Stormont, the DUP leader insisted she wanted a deal.

"I enter the talks in a positive spirit and I trust others will do likewise. This should not be about party political shopping lists but about restoring fair and stable government for everyone," she said.

"Northern Ireland cannot afford to drift through 2018 without ministers. I would find such a situation intolerable. The Secretary of State should emphasise that if devolution cannot be restored, then the Government will appoint direct rule ministers to make the decisions."

Secretary of State Karen Bradley will meet the parties separately at Stormont today. The Irish Government will also hold a series of discussions, and trilateral meetings involving both Governments and each party will be held later in the week.

Round-table talks may not begin until February 5.

Writing in today's newspaper, Mrs Bradley said it will not be long before decisions have to be taken about next year's budget.

"I do not want to have to take those decisions," she said.

"I want them to be taken by local ministers representing local interests and answerable to the Assembly.

"The UK Government is clear that it is only a power-sharing Executive and all the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement which serve the interests of Northern Ireland.

"But we are also clear the UK Government has a responsibility to ensure the delivery of public services on which people rely.

"We must and we will do whatever is necessary to provide political certainty and good governance in the interests of the whole community."

Mrs Bradley is due to update the House of Commons on the talks on February 7 - not a deadline but "a milestone", she maintained.

She didn't rule out appointing an independent chair and added that she wouldn't be giving "a running commentary" on the discussions.

Also writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Sinn Fein Northern leader Michelle O'Neill said her party was "prepared to stretch and challenge ourselves".

She continued: "I urge all the other parties to do likewise because the simple fact is that power-sharing is the only option. We need a bulwark against the Tory Government in London which is still pursuing its reckless Brexit and austerity agenda."

There was nothing to fear from an Irish Language Act, she said. "Mutual respect should mean precisely that and I believe Sinn Fein has shown that we expect the highest of standards in this regard," she added.

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said that while his party would engage positively in the talks, Sinn Fein "could not be allowed to continue to hold Northern Ireland to ransom".

He added: "If the talks do not reach a positive outcome, it is incumbent on the UK Government to take responsibility and ensure Northern Ireland has some form of functioning government, whether that is a voluntary coalition or move to direct rule.

"It is simply intolerable to let the current political drift continue.

"No party should be allowed to stymie progress through their ideological stubbornness."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said a concerted effort from all the parties was needed if the talks were to succeed.

She repeated Alliance's call for an independent mediator to inject fresh energy into the process. Mrs Long said: "It is incumbent on every party involved not to erect new barriers to agreement. Our public services, the community and voluntary sector, local businesses and more all need the certainty of a restored Executive and a budget put in place for next year."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called for details of the progress made by the DUP and Sinn Fein in the last talks to be made public. "Other parties cannot be asked to negotiate blind while the DUP and Sinn Fein refuse to put their cards on the table.

"In our meetings with the Irish and British Governments this week the SDLP will be making it crystal clear: we aren't here to window dress," he added.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has urged the Taoiseach to hold more meetings with ordinary people in Northern Ireland as part of a renewed effort to resolve the political crisis here.

Speaking in the Dail, Mr Adams called on Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney to hold discussions with "people in the North outside of the political parties to get a deeper sense of what is happening".

He told the Taoiseach: "I know you and Minister Coveney have done some meetings and I would encourage you both to do more.

"I have recorded my concern at the toxic atmosphere which has shrouded political discourse in recent times.

"Martin McGuinness' letter of resignation is very clear about what needs to be done.

"Grassroots opinion is very clear also," the Sinn Fein leader added.

Belfast Telegraph

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