Secretary of State Karen Bradley taken to task by parties on 'flying visit'
Bradley's brief encounters: 30 minutes for fire-hit Belfast... 45 minutes for the future of Stormont... and then she's off
Karen Bradley faced fierce criticism last night after a meeting with the local parties was described as "embarrassing".
The Secretary of State made a quick getaway to catch a flight after spending just 45 minutes with representatives of the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and the SDLP.
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She said that the session was simply a briefing on new legislation passing through Parliament to allow civil servants to take decisions in the absence of the Executive, but some parties called the gathering a waste of time.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long warned that the relationships between the parties and with Mrs Bradley are now in a worse state than ever.
"This briefing was not just a pointless exercise, but I would argue it was actually counterproductive in that relationships between the parties and indeed with the Secretary of State are possibly now at an all-time low," Ms Long said.
"The reality is, the longer this process continues the further we drift from restoration of the institutions."
She said the parties were now further away than they were when the talks collapsed in February and the gap is growing "with every day that passes".
Ms Long said: "The responsibility now lies with the Secretary of State to make a decision to convene the talks and to get us back in the room, and put it up to the parties.
"If parties are not willing to participate, then let them be held accountable by the public who are sick to the back teeth of this nonsense."
Voicing his frustration at the outcome of the meeting, Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann MLA called on the Government to reintroduce direct rule if it cannot get political agreement to restore devolution at Stormont.
He said: "I regret to say it, but the meeting was badly organised and badly handled, with no clear purpose or direction. She was badly advised to hold it at all," he said.
"What little trust there was has now gone completely.
"We need a proper talks process but we are also in no doubt that if we cannot get political agreement the Government has no alternative but to bring in direct rule.
"Sadly, this meeting has done more harm than good and it's now up to the Secretary of State hands to take ownership of the process. DUP and Sinn Fein agreement on the basis for talks will never happen.
"The people of Northern Ireland need her to show some backbone, face down the parties causing the blockage. If those parties don't like what a talks process looks like that's up to them."
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, who attended along with party colleague Peter Weir, said they were invited to be briefed about the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill introduced by Mrs Bradley to grant decision-making powers to civil servants.
He said: "This Bill is another symptom of the Sinn Fein boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. It is far from ideal.
"The Secretary of State should have gone much further in terms of decision-making powers.
"The Bill is not ambitious and it does not deliver good governance for Northern Ireland."
But said overall blame for the impasse should rest with Sinn Fein and not Mrs Bradley.
He said: "Whilst parties are lining up to blame the Secretary of State, Sinn Fein collapsed devolution and is the only party refusing to form an Executive until certain items on its wish-list are checked off.
"The real problem lies at Connolly House rather than Stormont House.
"The DUP stands ready to enter an Assembly and Executive immediately. We have no preconditions. It's high time Sinn Fein stopped holding Northern Ireland to ransom."
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood called the meeting "a complete and utter waste of time."
"It is quite clear that the British Government are totally unprepared to take the necessary next steps to get power-sharing restored," he said.
"Today is an embarrassing day for the Secretary of State. Quite simply, it is not her job to wait for a 'consensus', her job is to kick-start the talks process.
"I think I probably should have stayed in Derry,"
Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd accused the Government of "treating large sections of this society with utter and complete contempt".
"We attended this meeting to establish if there was basis for going forward with a rights based society with accountable government for all. Unfortunately that was not the case," he said.
"It is quite clear that the British Government is treating large sections of this society with utter and complete contempt."
Mrs Bradley said it had "always been clear" the meeting with the parties was a briefing about her bill and nothing more:
"I have always been clear that this was a briefing for the parties on the bill that will become an Act of Parliament next week so that they can understand what the debates were in parliament last week and this week in the House of Lords, and so they can see now that it is going to be an Act of Parliament in the next few days and what that will mean," she said.
"They have to do the right thing, come back into government, and I want to see them do that as soon as possible."
A UK Government spokesperson confirmed: "The Secretary of State's key priority is the restoration of devolved government at Stormont.
"Following the passage Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 through Parliament, the Secretary of State was keen to meet the parties at the earliest opportunity to look ahead to implementation of the legislation and next steps.
"Her engagement with the parties, and with the other key stakeholders in Northern Ireland, will continue in the weeks ahead."