Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks resume but still 'significant gaps' between Sinn Fein and DUP

Other parties angry at being kept in the dark

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP says it has made "some progress" in its talks with Sinn Fein to restore power-sharing but "quite significant gaps" still remain between the parties on key issues.

DUP negotiator Simon Hamilton delivered his assessment on the state of play as the five main parties met for the first of a series of round-table talks yesterday afternoon.

Some Stormont sources said that while much remained to be resolved, a breakthrough to end the political stalemate still could not be ruled out. They said that if a deal was to be done, it would make sense to act now before Gerry Adams steps down as Sinn Fein president on Saturday.

Following yesterday's hour-long round-table meeting, Mr Hamilton said: "We have huge differences between the parties on a range of key issues and we have been working through those issues.

"We have made some progress on many but there are some big and, in some cases, quite significant gaps.

"We want to get this Assembly back up and running again. We want to do that on the basis of an accommodation that is fair, one that allows a sustainable Stormont to be restored."

Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said: "This process will come to an end in the next short while and we will make a judgment then as to whether a deal is possible or not."

The Newry and Armagh MLA continued: "We entered into what we were told and agreed was a short and sharp process to see was an agreement possible.

"We were told this is the last chance and we accept that the talks cannot go on forever."

A government spokesman insisted that the parties shared a "collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution".

He said: "Good progress has been made in discussions during this latest phase of talks but some difficult issues remain.

"Our assessment is that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable.

"Time remains short. We all need to focus our collective efforts on working together to form an executive."

Secretary of State Karen Bradley will update MPs on the talks tomorrow.

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said there had been "no progress at all" at the talks.

"Today we have a situation where we are being asked to give them even more time and we are not being given the opportunity to discover what the DUP and SF have been working towards," he explained.

UUP leader Robin Swann said his party wasn't interested in tokenism.

"We don't want to just be sitting at the table, we want to be fully contributing," he said.

"There is nothing in this process to indicate that anything has changed.

"I would be delighted if someone could tell me otherwise. Frustrated does not come close to describing our feelings."

Mr Swann urged Mrs Bradley to "make her mark" on the process.

"We have neither devolved government nor direct rule. The Secretary of State can change that by making clear that she will urgently consider alternatives," he commented.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the smaller parties were being locked out of the real negotiations. "While there was a meeting of the parties today, none of the substantive issues were discussed," he stated.

"We still do not know the detail of what is going on behind closed doors between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"If this process is to mean anything, all parties must engage and be engaged on equal terms.

"The SDLP want to be constructive but we cannot negotiate if we do not know what has been agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein."

Mr Eastwood called on the two governments "to show leadership and start playing their role in this process by bringing forward their own joint position to flush the truth out".

He said there was "little hope of an inclusive sustainable government if we cannot even have inclusive negotiations".

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon added: "What we got today was more of the same."

Alliance leader Naomi Long issued a warning, saying: "There is an opportunity still for a deal to be done, but at the moment I do not think we could have any confidence that a deal could be done if the process continues as it has."

TUV leader Jim Allister commented: "There will only be a deal if the DUP are prepared to make enough concessions to placate IRA/Sinn Fein.

"The DUP have no red lines. Sinn Fein have lots of red lines."

He added: "If there is going to be a deal, it is going to be on the basis of the DUP conceding to Sinn Fein."

Belfast Telegraph

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