Belfast Telegraph

May raises hopes of deal to end impasse at Stormont

Theresa May
Theresa May
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley

By Andrew Woodcock

The Prime Minister has told Cabinet colleagues there is a momentum around the new talks process to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

But addressing the weekly Downing Street meeting, Theresa May cautioned that the challenges that needed to be overcome before devolution returned should not be underestimated, according to the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley also told yesterday's Cabinet gathering that the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry had led to a "renewed rejection of violence by the people" of the region, Mrs May's spokesman added.

"The people of Northern Ireland have also expressed their frustration at the current impasse and their desire to see devolved government restored quickly," the spokesman said.

And he added: "The Prime Minister said that while momentum exists around the need to commence a talks process, we should not underestimate the challenges facing the Northern Ireland parties.

"Intensive preparations are now taking place between the UK and Irish governments and with Northern Irish parties on the structure and substance of the talks."

The new talks initiative, which was announced by the two governments last week, will start on May 7.

The ongoing political stalemate has left Northern Ireland without a devolved government for more than two years.

Efforts to resurrect the powersharing institutions have been injected with fresh impetus following the death of Ms McKee (29) at the hands of a dissident republican gunman amid unrest in Londonderry on April 18.

On Tuesday, Mrs May's spokesman said of the Northern Ireland talks process: "Some familiar issues have been discussed publicly in recent days. We, along with the Irish Government, are now making preparations for what the structure and the substance of the talks will look like.

"I think the PM and the Northern Ireland Secretary are clear that we don't underestimate the challenges that are involved in this process. At the same time, there is a feeling that there is momentum out there."

Meanwhile, the Sinn Fein leader has called for a Plan B to be put in place if talks to restore Stormont fail. Mary Lou McDonald said her party will go into talks with the DUP in "good faith", but the British and Irish governments must have a back-up plan to ensure any deadlock can be cleared.

Ms McDonald said rights issues such as marriage equality and an Irish Language Act "cannot be left wanting" in Northern Ireland if the DUP refuses to change its stance.

She denied claims that Sinn Fein and the DUP had been "bounced" into new talks after the murder of Ms McKee.

"The public sentiment after the death of Lyra McKee couldn't be missed, it is correct to say the current situation of stalemate is unacceptable and intolerable at this point - something has to happen," she said.

"We need assurances from the governments that they know what they're doing, and a Plan B is absolutely essential because, if the parties and DUP cannot move to a place of equality, well the two governments must honour the equality obligations under the Good Friday Agreement."

She added that the British and Irish governments had neglected their duties to Northern Ireland as they had been distracted by other factors including Brexit.

"For a long time there has been a sense of disengagement from the Northern peace process, governments have been preoccupied and distracted by other events," she said. "Now will be a real test of that for Dublin and London, on their understanding of the issues in the North, and their fundamental commitment to the peace process."

Sources close to the party have said that if the DUP refuses to budge on marriage equality and an Irish Language Act, it is hoped Westminster would step in and legislate for both, breaking the deadlock and paving a way for a functioning Assembly without red lines stalling progress.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has made it clear that her party's position on marriage equality has not changed, and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.

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