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Alliance calls for independent mediator to rescue Stormont

By Suzanne Breen

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry is calling for an independent mediator to be brought in to breathe new life into the Stormont talks.

As Secretary of State James Brokenshire outlined his plans to pass a budget for Northern Ireland in the House of Commons, Dr Farry urged him to appoint a mediator and to include other parties in the negotiations.

The British Government must also consider reforming the petition of concern to eradicate "unreasonable vetoes", he said.

"Even at this eleventh hour, there are still alternatives to full direct rule being imposed. Alliance are not giving up on devolution," he added.

"We are reiterating our calls for an independent mediator to be brought in, allowing for a more inclusive and multilateral format to these negotiations."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said if a deal couldn't be reached then Westminster must take decisions for Northern Ireland in consultation with MLAs.

He said: "The public should recall that less than 12 months ago there was an agreed Programme for Government between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"None of the issues being raised as critical preconditions now were raised by Sinn Fein in December when they were pulling down devolution."

Urging Sinn Fein to lift its pre-conditions, he added: "If that will not happen, decisions must be taken at Westminster in consultation with local politicians at Stormont."

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach yesterday insisted power-sharing at Stormont could be revived. Theresa May and Leo Varadkar discussed the ongoing deadlock on the phone.

Both agreed it was still possible to form an Executive. Mr Varadkar told the Prime Minister there could be no return to direct rule as it was before the Good Friday Agreement.

The Taoiseach's office said Mrs May pledged that she didn't want to see Westminster running all Northern Ireland's affairs and that budget preparations weren't the first step on that road.

"Both leaders agreed that there is still time to reach an agreement," Mr Varadkar's office added. Labour shadow secretary of state Owen Smith urged Mrs May to "get stuck in" to negotiations to restore power-sharing.

It was "completely inexplicable" that she had visited Northern Ireland just once since the Executive collapsed in January, he said. "She has not attended a single substantive session of the talks in Belfast and she has not made a single substantive intervention to try and move things along," he told the House of Commons.

"I know things have been difficult recently, but frankly the odd phone call to the Taoiseach just isn't good enough.

"It may be true that the days of a Prime Minister or President flying into Belfast to fix things are past and overstated, but they could at least give it a go."

Rejecting Mr Smith's claims, Mr Brokenshire said Mrs May had met the Northern Ireland parties in Downing Street and remained "actively involved".

He insisted his budget didn't represent a return to direct rule. It wouldn't "set out any spending decisions by me or the Government" but would incorporate figures from Northern Ireland's Civil Service, he added.

Mr Brokenshire maintained power-sharing could be saved. There were only a small number of differences around Irish language rights and culture, he said.

He agreed to "reflect carefully" on MLAs' salaries amid calls for them to be cut or stopped.

UUP peer Lord Empey said he had listened "in despair" to Mr Brokenshire's statement.

"Nowhere was mention made of the real victims of the shambles at Stormont - those hundreds of thousands on waiting lists," he said. "There was no mention of schools under financial strain and the voluntary sector which is living from hand to mouth. The Secretary of State suggests that the talks can continue, but why adopt a policy that has failed and failed again?"

Lord Empey described the last DUP-Sinn Fein administration as "the most incompetent Northern Ireland has endured since 1921".

He added: "Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein are temperamentally equipped to deal with shared government - it is all about domination, not partnership.

"James Brokenshire would do well to review how the institutions have been corrupted since 1998 and may discover that going back to the original Agreement and starting again is one possible way forward."

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