Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Talks: Round 2 - with new structures but no guarantees

By Victoria Leonard

Northern Ireland's MLAs will arrive at Stormont Castle today to begin last-ditch efforts to set up a new Executive - two days after getting a £500 pay rise.

Following the collapse of the previous round of talks last week, the NIO has invited the parties back for "intensive talks".

The new discussions will begin after the 90 MLAs each received a £500 salary increase on April Fools' Day.

This takes their basic earnings to £49,500, despite Assembly business being put on ice due to the political deadlock.

While the last round of talks was deemed "shambolic" by some politicians, the NIO says that the UK and Irish Governments have now agreed "an intensive process to drive progress".

This will incorporate an agreed agenda, a structure of bilateral meetings, regular round-tables and a co-ordination mechanism across all the issues.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire had faced criticism for his handling of the last phase of talks, which didn't stage one round-table session.

Sinn Fein accused him of not being an independent chairman, while the DUP urged him to be more assertive.

The talks will be conducted using what the NIO described as a "well-established three stranded approach".

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson (below) said there was a need for "give and take on both sides", and added that the DUP was "hopeful that if all of the parties engage constructively, we can make progress".

"Our overriding objective is to get agreement and to get a government," he stated.

"That said, we recognise that there are some challenging issues to be resolved and we hope Sinn Fein will be willing to compromise, just as other parties have to try and reach out for agreement.

"The people of Northern Ireland do not want a return to direct rule and they don't want another election, and that is what we are looking at if we are unsuccessful.

"Being out and about this weekend, I have met a lot of people, and the overwhelming desire is for Stormont to be up and running."

Regarding the "red line issues" which led to the collapse of last week's talks, Mr Donaldson said that the focus should be on re-establishing the Executive first.

"There may be some issues that can be taken into government and resolved in government," he said.

"If we can reach sufficient consensus on some of the main issues then let's form a government and continue to work on the other issues going forward.

"There has to be give and take on both sides."

In a statement released yesterday, Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill called for the British Government to "end its pandering to the DUP".

Speaking ahead of a party strategy meeting in Dublin, she said: "Sinn Fein remain engaged in the process to find a resolution which will deliver progress at Stormont.

"We don't need a new agreement; what we need is implementation of what has previously agreed.

"We are fully committed to making the institutions work but they can only function on the basis of equality, integrity and respect.

"It is time to see real delivery and we need to see the Irish Government step up to the plate and we need to see the British Government end its pandering to the DUP and fulfil its responsibilities to oversee the delivery of agreements previously made.

"We want to see the institutions work, but to achieve that all the parties know what needs to happen. The British Government know what needs to happen, and that will be Sinn Fein's focus in the days ahead."

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist lead negotiator Tom Elliott MP said that while it was "difficult to be overly optimistic going into any talks process, we are going in knowing that a deal can be done".

"Parties shouldn't get into entrenched positions with red lines, and if they continue to do that then the chances of getting a deal are limited," he said.

"I don't think we had any red lines, so what we will be doing is looking for discussions and negotiations and hopefully that will come off.

"I think that the structure of these talks gives a better opportunity for them to succeed. It will certainly help."

While the previous round of talks was criticised for marginalising smaller parties, Mr Elliott said he thought there was a "better chance for our voices to be heard" during the upcoming negotiations.

Mr Elliott said that he also believed discussions over MLAs' pay should be put on the backburner until after an agreement was reached.

"The salaries of MLAs are set by an independent body, so they don't have much say," he said.

"I don't think there is any point at this stage to be looking at this issue. I think it will have to be reviewed, but there's no point in pursuing it now in the middle of a talks process."

Belfast Telegraph


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