Belfast Telegraph

Harmonious opening to talks as Northern Ireland parties vow to do a deal

Arlene Foster with the DUP delegation
Arlene Foster with the DUP delegation
Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Stormont yesterday
Robin Swann
Naomi Long
Colum Eastwood
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The leaders of Northern Ireland's five main political parties have pledged to do everything possible to end the stalemate at Stormont and restore power-sharing.

Speaking after a fresh talks process was launched yesterday, they acknowledged mounting public anger with the suspension of devolution for two-and-a-half years.

The two governments unveiled a fresh talks initiative more inclusive than the previous one which ended in acrimony last year.

Five working groups, which will include three politicians from each of the five parties, and representatives of London and Dublin, have been set up to address the issues preventing progress.

They will be headed by senior current and former civil servants.

The party leaders will hold weekly meetings with Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney to take stock of progress in the talks and agree the future agenda.

A British-Irish intergovernmental conference meeting, which will include ministers from both governments, will be held in London today.

The tone of yesterday's first round-table meeting of the party leaders at Stormont was described as more constructive and harmonious than a previous gathering earlier this year.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was entering the talks with a "good heart" and the determination to find agreement.

"We want devolution to work because we are a devolutionist party," she said.

"We will not be found wanting in getting a deal to get Stormont up and running again. We are entering this talks process to find a way forward.

"It has to, of course, be a balanced way forward and one that everyone in Northern Ireland is comfortable with, whether they are unionist, nationalist or indeed other - and I think that's very important. We are not looking at the prospect of failure - we want this to work."

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said her party was ready to do business.

"The current stalemate is not acceptable and not sustainable, there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved, and we believe they can be resolved," she said.

"If everybody is prepared to show leadership, if everybody is prepared to respect the clear public desire for equality and people's rights to be recognised and delivered on, we can find our way back to powersharing."

UUP leader Robin Swann said the talks must not be just for the optics.

"If (this) is simply window dressing then we're wasting our time and insulting the people of Northern Ireland.

"If this is simply five parties sitting round a table again to re-establish red lines, we've let the people of Northern Ireland down.

"If those parties who come in with red lines established are sticking by them, then they are letting the people of Northern Ireland down."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that in the past, the talks process had been "privatised between the DUP and Sinn Fein".

"Any of us who have been knocking doors over the last few weeks will understand what the public are saying. They want us to get back to work, to come back together, to remember the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement," he said.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "We are glad first and foremost that we are re-engaged around the table, it has been a long time coming.

"We believe there is a short window of opportunity in which we can actually deliver devolution again here in this building.

"That will require all parties to make compromises, it will require all parties to really focus their attention intensely over the next few weeks."

Mrs Bradley asked that the parties be given "time and space" to address the issues and "come to the right conclusion for the people of Northern Ireland which is the restoration of devolution".

Mr Coveney insisted progress could be made ahead of the EU election in a fortnight but acknowledged realistically that a deal may not emerge until after the poll.

The separate working groups will address rights, language and identity issues including an Irish Language Act; reform of the petition of concern; a programme for government; transparency, accountability and the operation of the Executive; and improving the sustainability, stability and operation of the Good Friday Agreement institutions.

Focus of the talks

1. Programme for Government. This will be led by the head of the NI Civil Service, David Sterling. The group will examine priority issues that would be in the in-tray of a future Executive, including problems facing the health and education sectors and specific strategies for prosperity, industry and investment.

2. Transparency, accountability and the operation of the Executive. This will be led by the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance, Sue Gray. It will build on previous discussions among the parties and consider further structural reforms if necessary.

3. Reform of the petition of concern. This will be led by Hugh Widdis, Departmental Solicitor and former Assembly Legal Counsel.

4. Rights, language and identity issues. This will be led by former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Paul Sweeney.

5. Improving the sustainability, stability and operation of all the Good Friday Agreement institutions. This will be led by former Head of the NI Civil Service, Malcolm McKibbin.

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