James Brokenshire invites parties to 'restructured' talks, but hopes of a deal are not high
A fresh round of intensive talks to restore power-sharing at Stormont will begin on Monday but political sources remain deeply pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire yesterday invited the parties to join new negotiations, which will be more structured than the last ones, with an agreed agenda and regular round table meetings.
The previous talks were described as "shambolic" by several parties. But Mr Brokenshire rejected Sinn Fein's suggestion of an independent mediator to chair the new discussions.
While the Secretary of State said that a small window of opportunity existed to reach a deal, most of the parties last night didn't hold out high hopes that compromise was likely.
TUV leader Jim Allister said it was "the circus coming back to town with the same clowns".
The previous talks ended with the parties unable to reach agreement before last Monday's deadline to form an Executive.
With Mr Brokenshire saying there is no appetite for another election, a return to direct rule looks increasingly likely after Parliament returns from its Easter recess in three weeks.
Announcing the new negotiations, a British Government spokesman said: "The UK and Irish Governments have agreed this phase of talks will be best supported by an intensive process to drive progress.
"This includes an agreed agenda; a structure of bilateral meetings; regular roundtables, and a co-ordination mechanism across all issues."
It is understood Sinn Fein had proposed the appointment of an independent chairperson, but Mr Brokenshire told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics he didn't see the value of such a role.
"At this stage, where we have a relatively defined group of issues, to bring someone new into the process - not familiar with the discussions that have taken place, not familiar with those key issues and what people have said - would be very challenging and difficult," he said.
In response to the announcement of new talks, Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott said: "We welcome the changes to the process and the introduction of some structure. But I don't expect a miracle solution. So far there is nothing to suggest a meeting of minds is possible."
Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "I don't detect any more willingness to reach an agreement now than before the deadline. From what Alliance knows of the position of the parties, there are no insurmountable issues and a deal is definitely doable. But the parties have to want to make it happen."
Mr Allister said: "Here we go again - the circus is back in town with the same clowns trying to conjure up success out of failure. They will try to pull another rabbit out of the hat, which will be no more impressive than the last one which they called Fresh Start.
"Maybe they will run a competition for schoolchildren to name the next political agreement."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged all the parties to come to a reconvened talks process with a "firm focus" on resolving all the issues.
He said an already angry public would not accept further failure. "The challenge ahead is significant but the gaps between the parties and the Governments can be closed," he said.
"Those involved in the talks, including the British Government, should be under no illusion.
"Confidence in our institutions and in politics is draining quickly. The public are absolutely furious and they will not accept further failure.
"If power-sharing cannot be re-established now, there is a serious threat we'll lose power over our affairs for a very long time. We cannot allow that to happen."
Sinn Fein last reiterated its position that the talks must be about the implementation of previous agreements.
Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd said public confidence in the Stormont institutions had been hugely damaged by the DUP's handling of the RHI scandal and the party's "disrespect for whole sections of the community".
Mr O'Dowd added: "Martin McGuinness made it clear there would be no return to the status quo and that position was endorsed by the people in the recent election.
"There is a need to restore public confidence by securing political institutions based on equality, respect and integrity and delivering for everyone.
"That requires the British Government and the DUP to commit to implementing the outstanding commitments of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements."
Mr O'Dowd said that the Irish Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, "must hold the British Government to account".