Fresh Northern Ireland talks announced, but parties urge caution
Fresh talks to resurrect power sharing government at Stormont will take weeks rather than months, Northern Ireland's new Secretary of State has insisted.
However, another Assembly election has not been ruled out, with Karen Bradley cautioning that she is continuing to keep that option under review.
Appearing alongside Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney at Stormont House yesterday, Mrs Bradley gave Northern Ireland political parties just two weeks to make progress.
The deadline is the latest in a series over the last 12 months, and comes after numerous rounds of talks last year all ended in failure due to disagreement over an Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage and how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.
However, Mrs Bradley yesterday emphasised that she believes a deal is now possible in the talks which will start next Wednesday, but said there must be progress by February 7, when she will update Westminster.
"Without rapid progress, the UK Government will face significant decisions," she said.
"These include setting a budget for 2018/19, the future of MLA pay, the prospect of a further election, which I continue to keep under review, and ultimately other arrangements to ensure that Northern Ireland is able to benefit from the good government that its people both need and deserve."
The Secretary of State said she believes the gaps to bridge between the DUP and Sinn Fein are currently narrow, but conceded that there remain "significant differences to overcome".
"A short, intense set of political talks to restore the Executive will therefore commence next Wednesday," she said.
"These will involve the five main parties, the UK Government and the Irish Government in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach."
Mr Coveney said that Northern Ireland remaining without a devolved government is "not a position that can be sustained for much longer".
"We all have a responsibility over the coming weeks to make every possible effort to secure the effective operation of the devolved power-sharing institutions," he said.
"Both Governments will work in partnership to achieve this and I look forward to being back here in Belfast next Wednesday for bilateral engagement with all the parties."
DUP MLA Simon Hamilton welcomed the announcement but urged "realism" from Sinn Fein.
"It is now incumbent on all of us to get round the table and build on progress made to date, to get devolution back up and running again so local ministers can take decisions that matter to the people of Northern Ireland and get devolution up and running again and working for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.
Mr Hamilton said the party did not want to see direct rule but if there was no deal the Secretary of State needs to act quickly.
"I think we can achieve a deal but it will require a lot of effort and a significant dose of realism from Sinn Fein," he said.
Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill committed her party to a "short intensive talks process".
"We are determined to find a resolution that sees the institutions restored and delivering rights for all citizens," she said.
"Credible, sustainable institutions can only be based on equality, respect and genuine partnership government. These talks will be a test of whether the British government and the DUP are finally willing to endorse these basic principles."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann warned that the process should not repeat the mistakes of the past.
"This process should not repeat the mistakes of last year's, excluding other parties and letting the process drift along," he said. "We need all the cards on the table and we need to see what the DUP and SF have agreed to date and what differences still remain."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the new talks "must be conducted completely differently".
"We cannot go on doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome," he said.
"In the wake of today's announcement, the SDLP has also taken the initiative to speak with the UUP and the Alliance Party. All of us agree that the progress and compromises supposedly made between the DUP and Sinn Fein must be shared and the negotiations must proceed on that basis."
Alliance leader Naomi Long also gave a cautious welcome to the announcement, but said an independent facilitator should be appointed.
She said: "If we are to have a successful talks process with a sustainable deal, an impartial chair will increase that likelihood dramatically."