Belfast Telegraph

Give us something positive, asks MP ... I've obligation to call election, says Northern Ireland secretary of state

By Jonathan Bell

Secretary of State Karen Bradley was implored to give the people of Northern Ireland "something positive" next week as she confirmed all party talks are to start no later than Monday.

However, the only thing Mrs Bradley confirmed was that she had a legal obligation to call an election.

Mrs Bradley was appearing in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for the first time since her appointment in Prime Minister Theresa May's reshuffle at the beginning of the year.

MPs discussed Brexit, the border, legacy issues, Bombardier and Kilroot power station losing out on a major energy contract.

However, most of the near two-hour session was dominated with the state of play in the ongoing Northern Ireland talks.

While the Secretary of State said it would be "unfair" to say anything other than the talks were happening she did say all the major parties would hold a round table discussion, beginning no later than Monday.

She said "narrow but deep differences" remained. She said the current talks were in a "preparatory stage".

She repeatedly refused to be drawn on specifics such as MLA pay or deadlines but said it was her focus to restore devolution. She said it had been unfortunate her appearance at Northern Ireland questions next week was being interpreted as something more significant than what it was. She explained how it was procedure to provide a topical statement to MPs at the start of the session.

Committee members implored the Secretary of State to give a more substantive statement given the impending break in parliamentary proceedings the following week.

Mrs Bradley said she was optimistic about "having something concrete" to say to parliament next week. She said if there was sufficient progress legislation would have to be implemented from Westminster to restore the institutions. However, she said she did not want to "insult" parliament by making a statement "that says nothing".

On the Prime Minister flying in to get a deal, Mrs Bradley refused to be drawn but said she was being "flexible and pragmatic".

"For the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, I hope we are in a position to make a statement," she said.

Asked about the recent Reavey report which recommended MLAs' salaries be cut immediately with further reductions over the year, Mrs Bradley would only say it was an option.

"I have a legal obligation to call an election," she said, although when asked what chances there were of a poll she refused to be drawn.

David Sterling, the senior civil servant currently running Stormont in the absence of devolved ministers, last week told the committee that he required certainty on a budget for the forthcoming financial year by February 8.

Mrs Bradley declined to confirm if the Government would act to legislate for a budget on that date if efforts to restore powersharing had not succeeded at that point.

But she added: “Depending on the outcome of talks there will be different things that will be needed to be done in Westminster and I would hope that next week I can provide an update as to what those things are.”

Lady Sylvia Hermon, on next week's statement for Northern Ireland questions, told the secretary of state: "Just give us something positive, just give the people of Northern Ireland something positive... and that's a plea from the heart."

You can see how  Mrs Bradley's first appearance in front of the committee unfolded below:

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