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Stormont deadlock on agenda as Smith meets NI parties

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

New Secretary of State Julian Smith will tell Northern Ireland party leaders that he wants to see devolution restored as soon as possible when he meets them for talks at Stormont today.

He is set to hold discussions with the politicians this morning and will then meet other business and public figures in the afternoon.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was a positive sign that he was holding discussions with the local parties so soon.

"I welcome Julian Smith into a role which has a considerable workload and many outstanding issues that I hope he will be able to make progress on," she said.

"I am glad that he is getting down to work straight away and will meet all the local parties."

Mrs Foster continued: "I hope the Secretary of State shares my desire to see devolution restored and that progress can be made in the talks.

"Our schools and hospitals need key decisions to be taken and it is the people of Northern Ireland who have suffered as a result of the decision to collapse devolution over two years ago."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "I wish the new Secretary of State well in the role. He has an important role to play in the ongoing talks process and must approach it in an impartial, focused way to help break the deadlock.

"While well acquainted with the DUP, he must ensure he stays objective and ready to build relations with all parties in Northern Ireland."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said Mr Smith "must waste no time in taking decisions and bring an end to the indulgence of Sinn Fein and the DUP, to see the Assembly and Executive restored" soon.

Mr Swann continued: "I urge Julian Smith not to let the DUP-Conservative confidence-and-supply agreement to influence his decision-making and neither should he allow Sinn Fein to hold democracy to ransom by allowing their self-imposed boycott of the institutions to cause further damage to local services."

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said a change of Secretary of State would "still end in failure if it is not accompanied by a change in British Government policy here".

He said: "The major problem within the NIO is the policy it implements rather than the personality that fronts it.

"If Julian Smith continues to follow flawed and failed policies then he will fail like the previous incumbent and the one before that."

Mr Murphy continued: "Unfortunately, Julian Smith doesn't exactly inspire confidence given that his only interest in the North to date seems to have been to attend the DUP conference.

"A change in these failed policies is what is now required and it is long past time that the British Government began taking its obligations to the peace and political process in Ireland seriously."

Meanwhile, a Sinn Fein councillor has said the Secretary of State is a "symbol of British occupation" and the only way to deal with them is to "send them home".

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon councillor Catherine Nelson made the comments in a tweet on Wednesday.

"Brokenshire, Villiers, Bradley, Smith - all symbols of British occupation," the former MLA wrote.

"None will ever serve the interests of the people of this island. Their focus is and will remain maintaining what little is left of their crumbling empire.

"Only way to send them home #IrishUnity #Think32." Mrs Nelson's council colleague Julie Flaherty claimed the tweet - now deleted - was reminiscent of Donald Trump supporters chanting "send her back" in relation to a Congresswoman born outside the USA.

"Catherine Nelson's tweet was a throwback to the old republican mantra of 'Brits Out' and a long way away from their modern mantra of 'equality, rights and respect', all of which are in short supply from Sinn Fein," the UUP councillor said.

Ms Flaherty called for the Sinn Fein representative to apologise.

"If a unionist politician had tweeted telling a visiting Taoiseach or Tanaiste to 'go home' one can only imagine the response," she added.

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