Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland all-party talks to begin - but already there's been a delay

By Jonathan Bell

All-party Northern Ireland talks, set to begin on Monday, have already suffered a setback.

The SDLP, UUP and Alliance were set to join with the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments for a round table discussion in a final and renewed bid to resurrect the devolved institutions.

However, while they were thought to meet late on Monday morning, it's been reported they will not now meet until at least 4pm.

The SDLP and UUP have pressed for the first matter up for discussion to be on the progress made in the past year of exclusive talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Both parties and both governments need to publish on what has been agreed. Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said if Monday's delay paved the way for things to happen, then he welcomed it.

"We have been waiting a long time, we have been waiting for over a year and the last few months of this process has been shrouded in secrecy," he told the BBC.

"Both parties and both governments need to publish on what has been agreed. We were told there was significant progress made in November, but none of us know what that was and importantly the public don't know.

"And all the while the civil service needs decisions to be taken and the public sector needs more money. We are in a very precarious situation."

He said his party wanted to be part of the process and wanted a deal to restore the devolved institutions done.

"The two governments have given these parties enough cover," the MLA added. 

"We can't go in and hear there has been progress and not hear what that progress is."

"I don't want to see - and we are heading this way - that the British Government in conjunction with the DUP in some secret committee in Westminster making decisions on the north of Ireland and we can't have that."

I think the people of Northern Ireland want to know where they got to. Steve Aiken

The UUP also pressed for the details of the previous year's talks to be revealed.

"We want to see the DUP and Sinn Fein to outline where they actually got to in their decussions. We have been told time and time again that they got close to an agreement and we want to see at the round table today is exactly where they got to," said MLA Steve Aiken.

"I think the people of Northern Ireland want to know where they got to."

He added: "The British Government needs to put in a paper on where they were at, publish that, let everyone know in Northern Ireland and then let's move on.

"Things are getting even more serious over the last year than what they have been."

Meanwhile, Alliance has said, as have others in past weeks, reform of the petition of concern (POC) will lead to a "sustainable" Assembly and Executive.

“Even if the Assembly returns under its present format, the mutual vetoes currently in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein would seriously hamper free and open debate, as well as decision-making. This could easily lead to similar situations developing and blocking any potential progress for our society," said MLA Kellie Armstrong.

“Significant reform of the POC will future proof the Assembly to deal with other social policies and equality issues, preventing any single party being able to evade scrutiny or accountability to the Assembly or to frustrate the will of the electorate in future.”

Secretary of State Karen Bradley, in calling for the all-party talks to resume on Monday said there was one final chance and a small window of opportunity to return devolution. She described Wednesday as a "milestone" as it is Northern Ireland questions in the House of Commons, however, she later played down the significance of any statement she may meet.

Speaking in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee she said she "hoped to have something concrete" to tell MPs.

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