Belfast Telegraph

Karen Bradley open to independent chair in Assembly talks

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley

By Richard Wheeler

Karen Bradley yesterday suggested she was open to appointing an independent person to chair talks designed to restore power-sharing.

Speaking on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Secretary told the House of Commons she had proposed a "short, focused set of five-party talks" aimed at restoring devolution and the other institutions at the earliest opportunity.

But Labour MP Paul Sweeney said: "I think it's fair to say the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of many political leaders in Northern Ireland over recent months. Will she at least concede she's probably not the best person to be chairing those talks, and will she repeat the best practice of previous secretaries of state and appoint an independent chair to lead those talks at restoring devolution in Northern Ireland?"

Ms Bradley replied: "I don't agree with his opening remarks, but I do want to look at what is the best way to achieve a successful outcome from the talks. I'm open to looking at all options as to how to achieve that."

SNP Northern Ireland spokesman Gavin Newlands questioned if the slow progress of Brexit negotiations meant the all-party talks would not happen until after the May 23 European Parliament elections, noting this "brings us into the heart of marching season".

Ms Bradley said Mr Newlands had referred to a "number of issues that may be making it more difficult for parties to find an accommodation to enable them to restore devolution", adding that backing Theresa May's Brexit deal would help move the process forward.

There has been no Executive or Assembly since January 2017, when power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP broke down.

Mrs Bradley has faced criticism for doing little to restart substantive talks to restore the Assembly.

But East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson blamed Sinn Fein for the lack of movement.

"Sinn Fein are the only political party that is allowing political prejudice to get in the way of progress in Northern Ireland," he said.

"At the end of a time-bound talks process, the Secretary of State should recall the Assembly and put parties to the test. Every party must show clearly whether they are working in the public's interest or in their own self-interest."

However, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said neither the Government nor the DUP had any interest in an Executive or an Assembly while they pursue "a catastrophic Brexit".

Ms O'Neill stressed: "The present reality is that Karen Bradley's government is wholly reliant on the DUP at Westminster to stay in power.

"Both are at complete odds with the cross-community majority of MLAs and public here, who believe there is nothing good to come from Brexit, who do not want any hardening of the border and want to safeguard jobs, livelihoods and peace.

"It therefore appears to us that neither the British Government nor the DUP want an Assembly and Executive at this time (because it) would impede their catastrophic Brexit."

On Tuesday, former Alliance leader Lord Alderdice said Mrs Bradley did not have the "capacity" for the job and did not have a "real understanding of the problems Northern Ireland has".

The Liberal Democrat peer added: "She is not a bad person, but she should not be in the job because she does not understand it and she does not have the capacity to deal with it. (This) is allowing things to drift in a totally unsatisfactory way."

However, a government source accused Lord Alderdice of "political point-scoring".

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