Belfast Telegraph

Talks to restore Stormont 'in a far better place' as relations thaw

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP and Sinn Fein will today continue intensive talks at Stormont amidst a thawing of relations between the two parties.

Talks insiders last night said that while an Irish Language Act remained the major stumbling black to progress, the chances of a deal had risen from "zero to 50-50".

Nationalist sources were the most upbeat about progress, with unionists stressing that while the mood may have improved, major differences remained between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the Irish language. It is understood equal marriage hasn't been raised during the discussions.

Talks insiders ruled out the possibility of an independent chair replacing NI Secretary James Brokenshire or moving the negotiations out of Northern Ireland to encourage progress.

One Stormont source said: "We are in a far better place than we were last week. We are still a long way off a deal but the chances of one have improved considerably."

But the DUP leader last night struck a cautious tone. Arlene Foster told the Belfast Telegraph: "We had useful discussions with Sinn Fein over a number of days. We will have intensive talks with all parties but ultimately we can only reach an agreement if Sinn Fein is prepared to negotiate.

"A preoccupation with red lines and shopping lists is not a foundation for agreement. We can only reach agreement if everyone comes to the table looking for solutions. If Sinn Fein continue blindly with their demands then there will be no agreement."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill yesterday insisted that her party was committed to reaching a deal and not to causing chaos in Northern Ireland.

In a keynote speech to her party in Co Meath, she revealed that her party was ready to restart formal talks to restore power-sharing after intensive dialogue with the DUP away from the spotlight over the past week.

Within minutes of Mrs O'Neill's speech, the DUP issued a statement on the talks revealing an element of behind the scenes choreography by the two sides. The Sinn Fein leader strongly denied her party didn't want the Executive restored because it was out to destabilise Northern Ireland and to maximize its electoral prospects in the Republic.

"These assertions are not only untrue, but are patently absurd, illogical and do not stack up," she said. "Our political strategy is premised on effective and functioning government. We are committed to these institutions because they provide the democratic vehicle for addressing the day-to-day issues, which confront the people of the North.

"We want the political institutions restored because they include critical all-Ireland structures, delivering important benefits for all the people of this island and underscoring the benefits of all-Ireland approaches and actions." Mrs O'Neill insisted that progress to restore the Executive was possible and she wanted a "short, sharp and focused negotiation".

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken welcomed the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein seemed to be "co-ordinating activities and engaging", but warned that unless there was "genuine commitment to building trust and respect, then this is a charade". He said: "I hope that (the) statement by Michelle O`Neill is an indication that perhaps Sinn Fein have woken up to the fact that the people of Northern Ireland need a functioning government. However, I am not convinced, given the intransigence displayed by Gerry Adams only the previous day where he demonstrated belligerence and contempt for the opinions of others."

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has dismissed the prospect of the British and Irish governments establishing joint authority over Northern Ireland. Theresa May said the focus should be on resolving the stalemate at Stormont and restoring power-sharing.

She was responding to concerns raised by DUP MP Nigel Dodds after comments by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Dublin's role if the talks fail.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mrs May said: "I am happy to confirm that we would not be looking at a joint authority.

"You will be aware that the Belfast Agreement does include within it certain responsibilities in relation to the government of the Republic of Ireland in North-South co-ordination.

"The focus for all of us should be on trying to ensure that we can resolve the current differences and we can see that devolved administration reasserted in Northern Ireland. I think that is what would be best for the people of Northern Ireland."

On Tuesday, Mr Coveney said: "There can be no British-only direct rule. That is the Irish government's position."

Welcoming Mrs May's reassurance, Mr Dodds said "joint authority is entirely inconsistent with the principle of consent".

However, Sinn Fein said both governments were "co-equal" and had "a joint and equal role in safeguarding and implementing the agreements".

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