Belfast Telegraph

'It's embarrassing' - Northern Ireland politicians scathing as Bradley leaves briefing to catch flight

The meeting is understood to have lasted about 45 minutes.

Northern Ireland's politicians have issued scathing criticism of Secretary of State Karen Bradley after she reportedly cut short a meeting to catch a flight.

Ms Bradley met the largest five political parties in Belfast on Thursday before returning to London.

An SDLP spokesperson said the Secretary of State had informed attendees she would have to leave to catch a flight.

The meeting had been announced by the Secretary of State on Wednesday, after she was questioned in the House of Commons on what steps she was taking to restore devolution to Northern Ireland.

Issuing a statement lasting 20 seconds following the meeting, Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd said Karen Bradley was treating "large sections of this society with utter and complete contempt".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the meeting as a "waste of time".

"It is quite clear that the British Government are totally unprepared to take the necessary next steps to get power-sharing restored," said Mr Eastwood.

"Today is an embarrassing day for the Secretary of State. Quite simply, it is not her job to wait for a 'consensus', her job, alongside the Tanaiste [Simon Coveney], is to kick-start the talks process."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and deputy leader Nichola Mallon in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast following a meeting between Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley. Rebecca Black/PA Wire

UUP leader Robin Swann said the Government should be prepared to introduce direct rule if it is unable to reach an agreement on restoring Stormont.

“The Ulster Unionist Party is in no doubt that we need a proper talks process to resolve the issues which are preventing the restoration of a devolved administration at Stormont," he said.

I said to the Secretary of State I thought it was simply so that someone in the NIO could tick a box to say they had brought all five parties around a table UUP leader Robin Swann

“We are also in no doubt, that if we cannot get political agreement, then given the level of suffering in the community – not least with regard to hospital waiting lists and school budgets - the Government has no alternative but to bring in direct rule."

Mr Swann also said that Sinn Fein's "belligerent tone and attitude did not help the situation".

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann and MLA Steve Aiken in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast following a meeting between Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and the regions political parties. Rebecca Black/PA Wire

Leaving the meeting, Alliance leader Naomi Long told the press the restoration was now further away than it was at the time of its collapse.

Mrs Long said the earliest possible date for the start of formal talks to restore devolution would be after Christmas.

Writing on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, the DUP's Christopher Stalford said there was "no point" in blaming the Secretary of State for a lack of progress, and it was not her or the DUP's job to "tempt or entice SF out of the corner they have painted themselves into".

Mr Stalford later said, in a statement released by the DUP: "Whilst parties are lining up to blame the Secretary of State, Sinn Fein collapsed devolution and is the only party refusing to form an Executive until certain items on its wish-list are checked off.  The real problem lies at Connolly House rather than Stormont House.

"Sinn Fein alone blocks the Assembly, Executive, direct rule and even some form of shadow committees to give democratic accountability.  The boycotters have been pandered to for too long."

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mrs Bradley characterised it as a briefing on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill which is currently makings its way through Parliament.

The legislation will clarify and extend the decision-making powers of civil servants, and make it so the power-sharing Executive can be returned without the need for elections.

"This was a briefing for the parties on the bill that will become an act of parliament next week so that they can understand what the debates were in parliament last week and this week in the House of Lords, and so that they can see now it is going to be an act of parliament in the next few days what that will mean," she said. 

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved assembly since the collapse of Stormont in January 2017 following the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness, who resigned as a response to the RHI scandal.

A UK Government spokesperson:  "The Secretary of State's key priority is the restoration of devolved government at Stormont. 

"Following the passage Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 through Parliament, the Secretary of State was keen to meet the parties at the earliest opportunity to look ahead to implementation of the legislation and next steps.

"Her engagement with the parties, and with other key stakeholders in Northern Ireland, will continue in the weeks ahead."  

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