Stormont talks: Alliance, UUP and SDLP hopeful following meetings with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith aimed at restoring power-sharing
Talks aimed at restoring power-sharing at Stormont have got off on a positive footing, with the leaders of the SDLP, UUP and Alliance hopeful a deal can be reached in the coming weeks.
The latest round of talks comes following a bruising election for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, while the SDLP and Alliance made gains at the polls.
The Ulster Unionist Party failed to elect any MPs, narrowly missing out in returning Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has warned that, if negotiations are unsuccessful this time round, he will be legally obliged to call an Assembly election in the new year.
Pressure on politicians to reach an agreement has increased due to the spiralling crisis in the health service, with healthcare workers to go on strike on Wednesday in a dispute over pay and staffing levels.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said her meeting with Julian Smith was "constructive and positive".
"There are three working weeks left before the Executive Formation bill expires. We have three working weeks to deliver. This week can't be about people sitting around licking their wounds or preening themselves after last week's election," she said.
"The election is over - we are now down to the hard graft of getting an Assembly functioning, that means looking at difficult choices and reforms that need to be undertaken so that, when the Assembly is up and running, it is fit for purpose."
Stormont collapsed in January 2017 when Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister over the DUP's handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
People sick of the Stormont standoff. Colum Eastwood
Other issues, such as an Irish Language Act, reform of the Petition of Concern and the legacy of the Troubles, have also come to the fore in successive rounds of failed talks aimed at restoring power-sharing.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said people are "sick of the Stormont standoff" and, if parties can't come to agreement in the next few of days, the UK and Irish governments should published a document detailing what progress has been made so far.
"People want those who are elected to Stormont to get into Stormont and actually start solving the problems, like those in our health service," he said.
"One in four people are on a hospital waiting list, our schools have very little money, many of our young people are leaving our shores to find a university place or to find work, our economy is in real trouble and Brexit is happening.
"The idea that we can be off the pitch is just not acceptable anymore. I think the public have made it very, very clear. They want Stormont back up and running."
As politicians filed out of their meetings with Julian Smith, Irish language activists and healthcare workers staged separate protests outside Stormont House.
The demonstrations had a festive theme as Unison health union members sang carols with the words changed to highlight their demands for pay parity with workers in the rest of the UK.
Scores of children from Irish language schools wore Santa hats as they marched to the front of Parliament Buildings calling for legislation.
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said he raised the issue of the health crisis with Julian Smith and urged for the institutions to be reformed.
"The one thing we must see is a responsible and accountable government brought back. One where the challenges of the past are identified, and that is going to mean significant changes across the board," he said.
"If we can't get reformation in the process, we have to ask ourselves: 'What's the point in bringing [Stormont] back?'
"I would say that if there is good will I think we might get a deal by the middle of January, but there needs to be good will and there needs to be substantial reform."
Speaking prior to Monday's talks, DUP leader Arlene Foster said it is a "shame on all politicians in Northern Ireland" that the institutions are not functioning.
“I fundamentally believe that if there’s a will there is a way, and the issues have been talked about now for three years, so there is nothing new on the table – therefore there is every chance we can come to an agreement but there has to be a willingness across the piece," she added.
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill said the institutions have to be restored on a “credible and sustainable basis”.
“We will work towards securing agreement on outstanding issues, including an Irish Language Act, reform of the Petition of Concern, the legacy of the past and integrity in government," she said.
“I believe they can be resolved if there is the political will to do so. We need a new kind of politics, a new Assembly and a new Executive."
Belfast Telegraph Digital