Belfast Telegraph

Fresh Stormont talks on the way as Lyra's death inspires new momentum

Bradley and Coveney expected to announce bid to restore devolution

The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald at Lyra McKee’s funeral
The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald at Lyra McKee’s funeral
Karen Bradley and Simon Coveney pictured at an event in Belfast last year
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The British and Irish governments are expected to today announce a fresh round of political talks to try to restore devolution.

The all-party discussions are expected to start after next week's council elections.

It is understood that Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney are to make the announcement at Stormont this afternoon.

The initiative follows the New IRA killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry last week.

Addressing mourners at her funeral in Belfast on Wednesday, Fr Martin Magill appealed to political leaders to return to work at Stormont.

He told the assembled politicians that it should not take the death of a young woman to bring them together.

The proposed talks are set to take place before the EU elections on May 23 and before the publication of the RHI report, which, it is believed, will be highly critical of DUP figures.

The move by the two governments came as Sinn Fein rejected the DUP's offer to break the political impasse, which has seen power-sharing suspended for two years.

DUP leader Arlene Foster suggested a twin-track approach where the devolved institutions are restored quickly to deal with issues like running the health service, while a separate process addresses disagreements like that over same-sex marriage.

But Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "In terms of what Arlene Foster has proposed, in terms of going into the Executive and having a parallel process, that will not work.

"The citizens here deserve to have their rights delivered on marriage equality, language rights, legacy inquest rights.

"These things need to be delivered and that in itself then paves the way for the institutions to be restored."

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said her party was ready to play a full part in a "serious and meaningful" talks process.

But she warned that Sinn Fein would not "capitulate" on an Irish Language Act.

"Fr Magill laid down a very, very serious challenge, a challenge not just to talk, not to tick boxes, but to get power-sharing up and running," she told RTE.

The Sinn Fein leader described Miss McKee's funeral as "incredibly moving" and "harrowing at many levels".

She added that people across the island had been deeply affected by the young journalist's killing and that there was "anger" and "revulsion" over it.

But asked whether she was holding out for same-sex marriage and a standalone Irish Language Act, she said that the issues at play were not trivial.

"I'm sure you didn't miss the fact that those saying goodbye to Lyra were carrying the rainbow flag," she said.

"I'm sure you haven't missed the fact that Lyra herself was a very passionate and very effective advocate for marriage equality."

Ms McDonald continued: "There is nothing trivial in a society that has been fractured by conflict, in a society where we need sustainable power-sharing. There's nothing trivial at all on insisting on equality and rights for every citizen."

"We stand by the Good Friday Agreement and we are not going to resile from that position."

Pressed as to whether Sinn Fein was willing to compromise on the issue of a standalone Irish Language Act, Ms McDonald replied: "If you're asking me are we going to capitulate on behalf of citizens in the North to people who wish to hold back progress in every form, to people who do not wish to make room for others in an open democratic society, then the answer to that is no. We will not capitulate on that."

She said that the two governments needed to intervene to resolve the stalemate on same-sex marriage and the Irish Language Act.

"Given that the DUP aren't prepared to lift these issues and resolve these issues with us, the governments now need to step in," she said.

"They need to meet urgently, I believe, in the form of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and they need to map out the answers to these questions."

Meanwhile, Mrs Foster said Sinn Fein could not get everything it wanted - "a 5-0 victory" - with the DUP securing nothing.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, she said: "We are now a year-and-a-half forward (from the collapse of power-sharing) and there is huge frustration in our society.

"I think it is an eminently reasonable thing to suggest dealing with the normal day-to-day things in the Assembly whilst dealing in a separate process with the help of our government with the issues which Sinn Fein want to raise."

The DUP leader rejected Sinn Fein's demand that the underlying issues between the two parties be addressed before a return to devolution.

"That is putting their demands above the demands of the people of Northern Ireland," she said. "The people of Northern Ireland have demands as well and they are demands for a better healthcare system. They want their schools reformed and they want their infrastructure done."

Mrs Foster told RTE that Miss McKee's killing had not changed the DUP's position on same-sex marriage.

The journalist was planning to propose to her girlfriend, Sara Canning, next month.

Mrs Foster paid tribute to Miss McKee and noted her partner's huge loss.

But she added: "You shouldn't conflate sympathy and empathy with a political issue.

"We have a long-standing policy which hasn't changed - and that remains the position of the party."

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