Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May to fly in, but whether she joins Stormont talks is still up in the air

By Noel McAdam

Theresa May is expected to visit Northern Ireland this week - although she may play no part in the negotiations to restore Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Office was unable to confirm on which day the Prime Minister would fly in, or whether she would join the talks as they approach Monday's deadline.

News of the visit came as the parties worked towards their first round table session since the negotiations began more than a fortnight ago.

A Sinn Fein demand for the region to retain special EU-designated status post-Brexit has been rejected by the Government.

Yesterday it again blamed the approach of London and Dublin for a lack of progress in the talks so far.

With just a week left before the Assembly must form an Executive, Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the attitude of London was the "biggest stumbling block".

She added the week ahead would be "crucial" for the fate of power-sharing and insisted republicans would not accept a return to direct rule if negotiations failed.

She reiterated her belief that blame for the logjam lay with the UK Government, which she accused of failing to honour previous agreements.

And party deputy president Mary Lou McDonald said there was an obligation on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to represent the interests of the entire island and make clear to Mrs May the wishes of the electorate north of the border had to be respected. She said Mr Kenny had to "take a stand in the national interest".

"This business of dividing Ireland north and south is over now with the advent of Brexit," she said.

"We now all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

"All of our interests are absolutely intertwined.

"We will be relying on each other to stand up for each other and to protect each other and, in a very special and particular way, that places a big, big obligation on the Taoiseach." However, the DUP, which campaigned for Brexit and insists the referendum was a UK-wide vote, blamed republicans for putting up the biggest obstacles to a power-sharing deal.

A senior DUP source said it had yet to see whether Sinn Fein was "for real" over its threat to block Arlene Foster returning as First Minister even if agreement in the talks is reached.

DUP sources also believe the Government will opt to hold another election before a return to direct rule.

Asked if his party was optimistic about the talks succeeding before next Monday's deadline, the source said the spirit in the talks was "not bad".

"It will be busy towards the end of the week. We will see if Sinn Fein are for real at that point," the source added.

The comments came as London reacted to the Taoiseach's claim in Washington that Downing Street agreed with his position that there would be no return to direct rule.

In a statement the Government said its responsibility was political stability in the province and its sole focus the resumption of devolved government.

"We are not speculating on any other outcome," it added.

From outside the talks, Green leader Steven Agnew urged the parties to do a deal.

"I would call on those parties to find agreement in Stormont so that a budget can be agreed, government provided and our interests represented during Brexit negotiations," he said.

If negotiations on restoring power-sharing fail to reach consensus by Monday, Northern Ireland could face another visit to the polls.

The election at the start of the month was triggered by the collapse of the Executive amid a row between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the botched £490m Renewable Heating Incentive scheme.

The subsequent campaign laid bare a raft of other disputes dividing the main parties.

Belfast Telegraph


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