Brokenshire says window for deal closing rapidly

British and Irish governments trying to establish merits of resuming talks

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire: “We can’t see this political impasse continuing much longer.” Photograph: PA Wire

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire: “We can’t see this political impasse continuing much longer.” Photograph: PA Wire

 

The current political impasse in Northern Ireland cannot continue much longer, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has warned after meeting the North’s five main parties at Stormont on Monday.

Mr Brokenshire held discussions with the parties at Stormont House, while on Tuesday the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is also meeting them at Stormont to determine if there is any point in moving to full formal talks to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

The British and Irish governments are trying to establish whether the current deadlock means there is no room for compromise, and that some form of direct rule from Westminster will become inevitable.

Mr Brokenshire would not say at what stage he might seek to bring in direct rule, but indicated that in October pressures will increase to introduce a budget from London.

“We can’t see this political impasse continuing much longer,” he said. “The window of opportunity to restore devolution and to form an Executive is closing rapidly as we move further into the autumn. And with pressures in public services already evident, particularly in the health service, the need for intervention is becoming increasingly clear.

“I cannot ignore the growing concern in the wider community here about the impact that the current political impasse is having on the local economy and on the delivery of key public services.”

Stormont has not been fully functioning since the late Martin McGuinness stood down as deputy first minister in January. A number of efforts in the past eight months have failed to revive the Executive and Assembly.

Biggest obstacle

Disagreement on issues such as same-sex marriage and dealing with the past have been hampering progress, with the biggest obstacle to a deal DUP opposition to the Sinn Féin demand for a standalone Irish language act.

A series of meetings will continue this week, including between the DUP and Sinn Féin to see if multi-party talks should proceed. There was little sign of a willingness to compromise on key issues on Monday.

Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill repeated her rejection of DUP leader Arlene Foster’s call last week for the Northern Executive to be restored based on a commitment that the language issue would be addressed within a specific period of time, and that if it were not resolved Stormont again would collapse.

Ms Foster after meeting Mr Brokenshire said her offer still stood. She said she was disappointed with the “breakneck speed” with which Sinn Féin dismissed her proposal. “I hope they will reflect on that, and see that it was a real and meaningful proposal to move the matter ahead.”

Both she and Ms O’Neill separately agreed that talks if they are to happen should not be prolonged. Ms O’Neill said they should be “short, sharp and focused”, and that all issues should be concluded over September and October.

“We do not believe that there is a need to prolong these sets of talks,” said Ms Foster. “We are not the barrier here to devolution in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin are the barrier, and continue to be the barrier to dealing with the matters real people have to deal with on a day by day basis.”

Cards on the table

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said the “time has come for parties to lay their cards on the table, to be upfront about what the critical issues are in terms of the restoration of an Executive”.

She said restoring the Executive before there was an overall agreement on key issues as Ms Foster proposed “would be like building a castle on sand”.

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Steve Aiken said politics was being “held to ransom” by Sinn Féin.

“We heard last week from Arlene Foster who was willing to move the conversation on. I think it was telling that both Simon Coveney, the Taoiseach and also other political leaders from other areas were saying very clearly this is a substantial change and we need to move on.”

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry called for an independent mediator to be appointed to help find a way through the impasse.