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'No chance' of progress before autumn, warns source ahead of Stormont talks

By Suzanne Breen

Secretary of State Karen Bradley is to meet Northern Ireland's five main parties tomorrow as calls are made for a fresh round of negotiations to begin to restore power-sharing.

Stormont sources told the Belfast Telegraph that the Government had initially suggested that the parties meet Mrs Bradley in London, but that the offer had been declined as unrealistic.

They are now due to meet the Secretary of State for discussions in Belfast.

Power-sharing has been suspended for over a year following Sinn Fein's withdrawal from the Executive over the cash-for-ash scandal.

Talks to restore devolution collapsed in acrimony in February after the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to agree on Irish language proposals.

Despite Mrs Bradley's meeting with the politicians tomorrow, sources said there was "zero chance" of talks progressing seriously before the autumn.

But Alliance leader Naomi Long said the drift could not be allowed to continue. She called for an independent chair to be appointed to facilitate any new round of talks.

Mrs Long said her party had supplied a list of individuals "of national and international standing" whom it believed were suitable for the job.

"We have a window of opportunity to appoint a facilitator who can start to engage with all parties ahead of the summer, get up to speed with all of the issues and start to structure the intensive work required to restore the institutions," she said.

"The last round of talks ended in bitter recriminations, with claims and counter-claims exchanged between the two main parties, reinforcing the need for independent oversight of any new process.

"Only the appointment of a facilitator can start to rebuild trust between the parties, inject some urgency and direction into the process and provide the public with reassurances that those they elected are living up to their responsibilities to make devolution work."

UUP leader Robin Swann said: "If the Secretary of State is seeking to run talks using the same tired process as before, there is little hope that anything will change.

"If there is to be another process, it needs to be open to exploring solutions not previously on the table such a voluntary coalition.

"Sinn Fein should not be allowed to hold Northern Ireland to ransom."

Mr Swann said it was clear that Sinn Fein and the DUP on their own would not be able to strike a deal. "The Secretary of State needs to bring some new thinking to the table," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "What is needed isn't an independent chair for another round of meaningless talks aimed at bringing us back a Stormont which will crash again, but recognition that Belfast Agreement devolution has failed.

"Northern Ireland needs government. That can come from only one of two places - Westminster or Stormont. It's obvious Stormont cannot deliver. That being the case, it's time for the Secretary of State to stop faffing around and bring in direct rule".

Earlier this month, Mrs Bradley called on the DUP and Sinn Fein to return to talks. "The restoration of devolved government at Stormont must be our number one priority. I still believe that this is achievable," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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