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Governments hopeful Stormont deal possible but Sinn Fein and DUP face 'challenges'

Draft text: Julian Smith
Draft text: Julian Smith
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The two governments were on Wednesday night reworking the draft text of their proposals to restore power-sharing at Stormont after input from the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Stormont sources said that the blueprint for breaking the deadlock contained "challenges" for Northern Ireland's two largest parties, but that both believed a deal was still possible.

While there was no imminent breakthrough, they said nobody was "writing off" the process.

The DUP is keen to directly involve its senior MPs in the negotiations but it is understood they may need to remain at Westminster for votes on Thursday.

The party wants to avoid a repeat of 2018 when its Stormont talks' team agreed a draft deal which later met with staunch opposition from DUP grassroots and MPs.

London and Dublin briefed Sinn Fein and the DUP on their proposals on Thursday but did not share the same detail with the smaller parties.

While the governments are keen to publish their proposals as soon as possible and inject pace into the process, talks insiders said that could still be some time away as it was "more important to get it right than get it quickly".

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Secretary of State Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney worked late into the night at Stormont with the two big parties.

Sources said they were amending and tweaking parts of the draft text following consultation with the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Bilateral negotiations continued on Wednesday.

There was one round-table discussion involving all five parties but it is understood to have been very brief.

Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP left the negotiations as the governments got down to work with the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The three parties have been told they will be briefed on the draft text on Thursday - the third anniversary of the collapse of devolution.

All talks participants will return to the negotiations on Thursday morning.

The Secretary of State has said that if a deal isn't reached by January 13, then fresh Assembly elections could be called.

The blueprint presented to the DUP and Sinn Fein represents the governments' joint assessment of what a compromise deal to resolve outstanding disputes over the Irish language and Assembly voting practices might look like.

They are urging the parties to sign-up to the agreement ahead of Monday's deadline.

On that day, legislation to give civil servants extra powers to run public services here expires and Westminster assumes a legal duty to call a fresh Assembly election.

The events at Stormont came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing the Commons, urged Northern Ireland's politicians to "take responsibility" and get the institutions up and running again.

Ongoing industrial action by healthcare workers has heaped pressure on the political leaders to get back into a devolved Assembly.

Thousands of nurses are on picket lines at hospitals in a dispute over pay and staffing shortages.

Anne Waterman (60), a staff nurse striking outside the Ulster Hospital, less than a mile from the gates of Stormont, delivered a stark message to politicians.

"If I was to stop working for three years I would not be getting paid," she said. "I think politicians here really have to step up to the mark, speak up for us and support us because we do not know what else to do."

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 at the height of the 'cash for ash' scandal over renewable energy subsidies.

Belfast Telegraph


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