Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long: Not once have all parties been around the table together - no-one was chairing the talks

By Claire Williamson

Alliance party leader Naomi Long has revealed that in the past three weeks of negotiations at Stormont not once did all party leaders sit around a table together and there was "no-one chairing the talks".

The future of the Assembly was plunged into doubt on Sunday night after Sinn Fein dramatically pulled out of talks. The party said the three weeks of negotiations had run their course and they will not be nominating a deputy First Minister before Monday's 4pm deadline.

Read more: Stormont crisis: Monday Assembly sitting suspended after talks breakdown

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is faced with the possibility of calling an election or there is speculation he could delay his decision to allow for further talks.

Alliance party leader Naomi Long told the BBC Stephen Nolan show on Monday morning that over the past three weeks of crisis talks aimed at forming a new Executive - not once did all parties get together.

She said: "Ultimately, none of us as party political leaders were sitting around a table together within the last three weeks.

"We had bi-laterals and tri-laterals, but you don't know if what parties are saying to you is consistent to what they are saying to other people when you are not in the same room.

"It's very difficult to hold people to account or get any sense of momentum."

When asked who was chairing the talks - Mrs Long said "no-one".

"There was no-one chairing these talks. That was very clear. I have had this out with every other party. I've had it out with the Secretary of State, I made my opinion on this clear throughout the process.

"Technically it's the job of the Secretary of State, he said there would be round-table sessions, we had on some occasions the DUP refusing to be there and other times Sinn Fein refusing to be there and those meetings never happened.

"We got most parties round the table to discuss things, we got people around the table to look at things like budget.

"But in terms of serious negotiations on the issues that were going to be make or break, at no stage did we get everyone around the table."

Asked if Mr Brokenshire was having an effective input on the talks,  Mrs Long said: "He is the Secretary of State that we've been given, that we have to work with.

"It's not a ringing endorsement but at the end of the day we are the politicians elected to do the job, it's up to us to make it work. No point blaming the Secretary of State or the Irish Government.

She added: "We are elected to do the job and it hasn't been done. There is however an opportunity to get the deadline extended if they want to stop the messing around."

In addition UUP chief negotiator Tom Elliott said it was the worst negotiations his party had ever been involved in.

He said: "We have engaged in every set of recent negotiations from Haass O'Sullivan to today. This was simply the worst. Unless there is a massive u-turn in terms of attitude from the two largest parties, then Northern Ireland could be in for a period of prolonged drift."

Mrs Long said the "differences" between the parties were not insurmountable but highlighted how matters such as the call for an Irish language act had been around for some time and pre-dated the recent talks.

She said: "I'm in favour of Irish language language protections in law. But the idea that we would collapse institutions and put our public services in jeopardy over a spat over Irish Language is absolutely disgraceful.

"I'm saying the difference between parties is not enough to justify failure."

She added: "None of those issues collapsed the government eight months ago and none of those should stop a government being formed now.

"This is doable the big issues like legacy we have been talking about for 18 years but it's time passed that we actually did the job of getting this done.

"That means everyone making some pretty painful decisions.

"What is at stake if far too important for people to get precious about minor differences."

Power-sharing collapsed in January after a row over a botched green energy scheme predicted to cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer up to half a billion pounds.

Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the DUP's handling of the scheme, and Arlene Foster's refusal to step aside, triggering crisis in the institutions.

Sinn Fein has said it will not share power with the DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister until a public inquiry into the renewable heat incentive is concluded.

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