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'Now is the time' to get Stormont up and running says Coveney as DUP and Sinn Fein leaders call for cash injection


Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald and DUP leader Arlene Foster have said a "cash injection" is needed from central government to solve the issues facing Northern Ireland.

The pair were speaking following the latest round talks aimed at getting politicians back to work at Stormont, which has not been functioning for almost three years.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said all politicians have to take responsibility for the lack of devolution and there is a "range of issues" that need to be resolved to pave the way for a future Executive.

There has been a greater air of positivity around this phase of negotiations compared to the several previous unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement.

A rocky election for the 'big two' parties and a health crisis spiralling out of control has ramped up the pressure on politicians to find a constructive way forward.

It is understood Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has been working on proposals to break the deadlock, which he will outline to parties.

After his meetings with the five parties, Mr Smith described the mood as "positive". He said the parties had heard the message from voters "loud and clear".

"I think there were some very interesting results in Northern Ireland," he said.

"The sense that I get today is that every party has had time to reflect and there are serious issues to reflect upon and the biggest message they got on the doorstep essentially wasn't about Brexit, wasn't about their own parties' individual policies but it was the fact that this executive and assembly has remained dormant for 1,000 days and I think my sense from everybody is there was a realisation that that was not a sustainable position."

The biggest tragedy for this talks process would be for this assembly to get up and running and then fail. Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith

Campaigners for an Irish Language act protest outside Parliament Buildings (Niall Carson/PA)
Campaigners for an Irish Language act protest outside Parliament Buildings (Niall Carson/PA)
Campaigners for an Irish Language act protest outside Parliament Buildings as talks to restore the Northern Ireland powersharing executive begin at Stormont in Belfast. Monday, December 16, 2019.
Campaigners for an Irish Language act protest outside Parliament Buildings as talks to restore the Northern Ireland Powersharing executive begin at Stormont in Belfast. Monday, December 16, 2019.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he held positive talks with Mr Smith at Stormont on Monday afternoon.

"Now is the time to get Stormont back up and running," he said.

"It is far too long and I think we have seen the consequences of that in terms of the polarisation of politics across Northern Ireland, not just amongst political parties but also within communities."

After talks with Mr Smith, Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald said any future Executive will have to be "inclusive" and there is "heavy political lifting" required to secure a deal.

"We need a clear commitment from parties to really show up for work and form an Executive," she said.

Mrs McDonald said the UK Government also needs to deliver a "big cash injection" to help tackle the problems facing public services, in particular the health sector, a sentiment echoed by Arlene Foster.

"We fully realise and have known for the last number of years the frustrations of people at the failure of the Executive and Assembly to function and to deliver for all of our citizens, we believe now is a crucial and pivotal moment for people to step up and give leadership," Mrs McDonald said.

Mrs McDonald said there should be no "red lines" in the negotiations.

"That's not how we understand these matters or how we articulate it. These are matters that have to be resolved. And it's not about the political parties, it's about citizens, it's about people in particular who live here in the north," he said.

"At a time of great challenges, because Brexit still looms large, there is an obligation to deliver on issues. So I don't think anybody should be digging themselves into trenches and refusing to acknowledge and to honour other people's rights.

"So, yes, the Irish language is an issue that I believe we can reach agreement, so too the issue of public services. We should never ask people to have to make a choice between those things.

"In any civilised, democratic system you recognise citizens' rights and you also make provision for health, for education and for all the things we rely on in our day-to-day lives."

At a time of great challenges, because Brexit still looms large, there is an obligation to deliver on issues. Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald

DUP leader Arlene Foster acknowledged that voters had made it very clear that they wanted Stormont back up and running.

"I listened very carefully during the election campaign and right throughout the election campaign there was a desire to get Stormont back up and running again," she said.

"Therefore we are here to try to make that happen. I hope all the other parties will too."

She agreed that the election had created a new "momentum" towards finding a resolution.

"I hope we can grasp it immediately," she said.

"I know it's Christmas, it's that time of the year again, we have been in processes before in and around this time of the year, but I very much hope that at the beginning of the new year we will have an assembly up and running and one that can deal with all the issues we have talked about today."

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The DUP's Arlene Foster and Jeffery Donaldson speaking to the media after talks with Julian Smith. Credits: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mrs Foster said she did not believe a new Assembly election was necessary before 2022 and stressed the need for more funding for Northern Ireland.

The DUP leader also said reforms were required to ensure that any new Executive was "sustainable".

"Obviously, we have a range of issues that we need to see resolved, not least to be back in government to deal with the health issue, the fact that there is an injection of money needed to deal with the immediate issues," she said.

"We also need to recommit to the transformation programme that was set out by the last Executive in October 2016. So dealing with health, dealing with education and making sure we have enough funding for that particular sector, and driving forward the economy in Northern Ireland - all of those issues were discussed."

There is an injection of money needed to deal with the immediate issues. DUP leader Arlene Foster

Following the meetings, the Secretary of State said all the key issues must be resolved before the return of Stormont.

"The Good Friday Agreement was something that everybody worked incredibly hard on and this symbol, this empty symbol at the top of this hill (Parliament Buildings) cannot go on any longer - we have to govern and we have to get our Northern Ireland parties governing in the best interests of Northern Ireland citizens."

Commenting on his own future, Mr Smith said the Prime Minister had asked him to get on with the talks and drive towards a successful outcome. He appeared to rule out the suggestion that some of the big ticket issues could be parked, or moved into a separate process, to enable the restoration of devolution immediately.

"The biggest tragedy for this talks process would be for this assembly to get up and running and then fail," he said.

"We have to address head-on the major issues that need resolving. I think the idea that we just paper over the cracks, get it up and running and it fails in a few weeks or a few months is not a good one."

bpanews_4096684b-338d-46b1-8f86-30140d7c519c_1
A member of the health union Unison protests on the issue of nurses pay as talks to restore the Northern Ireland Powersharing executive begin at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Coveney said Wednesday's planned strike action by nurses represented a "reality check" for politicians.

"Decisions need to be made in Stormont, it is a reminder to everybody that now is the time to get this done," he said.

"We will work night and day before Christmas, and again in the New Year, if necessary to help the parties get it across the line."

While Stormont ostensibly collapsed in January 2017 following a row over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, several other issues have proved stumbling blocks in restoring the institutions since then.

A strategy for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, an Irish Language Act and reform of the controversial Petition of Concern have been sources of disagreement.

As the parties filed out of Stormont House on Monday, healthcare workers and Irish language activists staged separate protests outside.

Unison health union members sang carols with the words changed to highlight their demands for pay parity with workers in the rest of the UK, while pupils from Irish language schools wore Santa hats as they called for legislation to be introduced.

The PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne wrote to Northern Ireland's political leaders on Monday calling for them to agree on a strategy on how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

He also request support to hire more officers, upgrade the police estate and make improvements to the force's digital capacity.

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