Belfast Telegraph

James Brokenshire focused on 'finding a way through'

By Colm Kelpie

Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire has outlined his intention to work with the political parties in the talks process after the election.

However, he didn't specifically state whether he'll chair the discussions.

Mr Brokenshire has come under pressure from Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party recently with both questioning his impartiality as talks chair.

Their concerns follow a newspaper article in which the Secretary of State said investigations into killings during the Troubles are "disproportionately" focusing on members of the police and army.

On a visit to Dublin, Mr Brokenshire said that his focus is on getting the Executive back up and running.

"As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I'm the lead representative for the UK government and continue to be so," he said, when asked if he would chair the talks.

"I will be playing my role in working with the parties, in supporting and finding a way through - that's the job at hand that I think is needed, and that's what I'll be getting on and doing," he commented.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein are again returned as the two largest parties after the March 2 Assembly election, they will have only three weeks to resolve their differences and form a new power-sharing Executive. Stormont could be facing a return to direct rule from Westminster if that deadline passes without a deal on issues such as legacy and the Irish language. Mr Brokenshire said he was not contemplating anything other than devolved government in Northern Ireland.

"I think we need to be very firm and very clear to the parties and everyone.

"That is what Northern Ireland needs. That is my absolute and clear focus, and what needs to be done and what we need to get out from those negotiations and discussions," he said.

"Yes, it is a relatively short period of time, but we need to be very focused, we need to have that vision as to what people in Northern Ireland want to see."

Turning to Brexit, and ahead of a meeting with the Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, Mr Brokenshire said the UK will fully leave the customs union and then seek either to negotiate an associate membership, or a bespoke customs deal.

"We are leaving the European Union. As the Prime Minister clearly articulated, we come out of everything, and we have to negotiate new arrangements to govern our relationship as a nation state outside of the European Union," he said, "but wanting to have the closest possible ties and arrangements with our European partners.

"That's why we talk about a bespoke customs agreement, or associate membership of a customs union. It is that changed status that we would have by not being a continuing EU member state."

He said he did not want to see tariffs or barriers to trade being put in place for UK businesses.

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