Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Secretary of State Karen Bradley announces 'last chance' Northern Ireland talks - 'this is urgent'

  • Secretary of State will update parliament on progress of Stormont talks by February 7
  • Talks are 'urgent'
  • Process will last 'weeks not months'
  • Progress has been made

By Claire Williamson

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has announced a fresh round of talks due to start next week aimed at breaking the political deadlock at Stormont saying it was the last chance to reach a deal.

She would not say if there was a deadline, or if she would tackle the issue of MLAs' pay - which has been recommended should be cut. However, she said Parliament would receive an update on progress by February 7.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service has said a budget needs to be tabled by the first week of February.

Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney announced a "short and intense" set of negotiations involving the parties and their governments at Stormont on Thursday.

Discussions between the DUP and Sinn Fein ended last October without agreement, with key points such as an Irish language act and legacy issues among the sticking points.

Mrs Bradley said the process is "urgent" and one last opportunity remains to reach agreement but "significant differences" preventing a deal can be overcome.

Both Mrs Bradley and Mr Coveney said they were focused on a positive outcome and were not contemplating an alternative.

Mrs Bradley said: "The gaps are narrow but there are significant differences to overcome. I believe it is possible to reach agreement. All of the parties have expressed their commitment to the restoration of the Executive."

She continued: "These will involve the five main parties, the UK Government and the Irish Government.

"Initially these talks will focus on gaining clarity and understanding on the progress made in the past seven months on a range of issues including formation of the Executive and what are known as legacy issues.

"Progress must be swift. It is clear Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government and political leadership.

"The people of Northern Ireland can't continue to have their public services suffer with the lack of an Executive and without ministers making the key policy and budget decisions.

"Without an Executive Northern Ireland's voice on critical issues will not be heard as strongly."

Mrs Bradley said she will be updating Parliament "no later than 7th of February on progress".

"My clear focus now is to see devolution restored, an Executive established and the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past two decades continue and that is what I indent to do int he coming weeks," she said.

When asked if there was a deadline to the talks and if she would address MLAs' pay Mrs Bradley said: "Clearly there are some important legislative deadlines that need to be met.

"I think it's fair to say this is urgent."

Mr Coveney added: "We are talking about weeks rather than months. Pressure have been building for some months.

"We are very conscious of the time pressures here."

"There are a new set of pressures. There is a growing realisation that decisions made here need to be made by people who are elected here. Inputting into big big decisions taken elsewhere that will impact on Northern Ireland in the future."

Asked if there would be a different structure to this round of talks Mr Coveney said that the process does not need to be "redesigned".

"Many people underestimate the progress made in the past four or five months in particular.

"We don't need to redesign an entire process here to get agreement, we need focus and pressure and an understanding and context to allow the parties to work together to re-establish an Executive."

When asked what the options are if the new round of talks do not reach agreement - Mr Coveney said "all of our focus is on success not failure".

"There will be no focus on the alternatives to that."

Mrs Bradley added: "We are both optimistic and confident that we can get a devolved government back in place."

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