Belfast Telegraph

Tories must change approach to save Stormont talks, says Sinn Fein's O'Neill

By Suzanne Breen

The Prime Minister has said it is vital that Stormont's power-sharing Executive is restored so that local politicians can making decisions about Northern Ireland.

Theresa May discussed progress at the talks in a telephone call yesterday to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "They discussed the political situation in Northern Ireland and their shared concern over the lack of devolved government (for) nine months.

"Both leaders noted that while progress has been made over the past few weeks significant gaps still remained, including on Irish language, and it was up to the two main parties to overcome differences and reach agreement."

The Prime Minister had made it "absolutely clear" that it was in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland to see an Executive up and running "so that local decisions could be made by local politicians", the No.10 spokeswoman said.

Responding to Mrs May's comments, Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill said the Tory Government wasn't a "neutral broker".

Ms O'Neill said: "Their reckless and partisan approach is a central cause of the current crisis.

"Whitehall's repeated austerity cuts to the north's block grant and the refusal to implement the legacy agreement from Stormont House have badly undermined the sustainability of the power-sharing institutions and our ability to deal effectively with the past.

"They have refused to progress the Bill of Rights and Irish Language Act, formed a formal political partnership with the DUP at Westminster and are pursuing a hard Brexit which further undermines past agreements and the political process here."

Mrs O'Neill said if the talks were to succeed, there must be "a step change in the British Government approach and a clear demonstration that past agreements and any new commitments will be honoured".

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Office minister Chloe Smith said the Executive needs to be up and running as soon as possible so its voice can be heard at the Brexit talks.

Speaking at a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly plenary made up of elected members from Britain, the Republic and Northern Ireland in Liverpool yesterday, she stressed that time to restore the political institutions was quickly running out.

"In order to make real progress with prosperity in Northern Ireland we need a functioning, effective devolved government," she said.

"A devolved government that can contribute to the important discussions about how the UK will leave the EU, alongside the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales."

Ms Smith insisted that it was down to the country's two largest parties to come together and make the agreement.

"The issues that remain to be resolved between the parties are small in number but no one should underestimate how difficult this gap is for the parties to bridge," she said.

Ms Smith said if agreement wasn't reached soon, James Brokenshire would have to carefully consider the next steps available to him. He has previously warned that he will pass a budget for Northern Ireland in the House of Commons by the end of the month if there isn't a political breakthrough.

"It would be with great regret and reluctance that increased political decision-making from Westminster would become a reality," Ms Smith said.

"But, if a deal is not reached imminently, that greater involvement, beginning with Westminster legislation to set a 2017-18 budget for Northern Ireland, risks becoming inevitable." Ms Smith said.

Brexit minister Robin Walker told delegates that leaving the EU wouldn't mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"We place a huge value on the relationship between Ireland and the UK and the issues unique to Ireland and Northern Ireland will always be at the forefront of the negotiations," he said.

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