Michelle O’Neill ‘was ready’ to make deal to restore Stormont Executive

Senior Sinn Féin party figures blocked leader from securing agreement, Government sources say

Former US president Bill Clinton met Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill  at George Best Belfast City Airport

Former US president Bill Clinton met Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill at George Best Belfast City Airport

 

The Government believes that Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, was ready to do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to restore the Stormont Executive but was blocked by senior party figures.

Informed sources have said the belief in Dublin – one shared by the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire – is that Ms O’Neill was ready to compromise but others in the party decided against doing so.

The belief is that Ms O’Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster were ready to do a deal on legislation for the Irish language, the key issue blocking a political deal to restore the executive now dormant since January.

It was suggested that figures on Sinn Féin’s executive board, the ard chomhairle, which includes Gerry Adams, had a differing view to Ms O’Neill. The ard chomhairle met in Dublin last Saturday.

It is understood the same assessment of the impasse in the talks to restore the Northern Executive is shared by both the Irish and British governments.

‘Absolute nonsense’

Responding to questions from The Irish Times, a Sinn Féin spokesman, however, described the privately-expressed Government view as “absolute nonsense”, saying that it showed a “completely wrong analysis of the political situation”.

The spokesman said that Ms O’Neill said late last week that “there were a huge amount of outstanding issues to be addressed”.

The spokesman said it had been floated in the media around that time, and over the weekend, that a deal could be imminent. A DUP statement on Saturday said that “the notion that an agreement is imminent and that the assembly will meet next week has no basis in fact given the present state of the talks”. Before Saturday’s Sinn Féin meeting, Mr Adams said he shared the DUP’s analysis.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May discussed the Northern Ireland talks in a phone call earlier this week.

Mr Varadkar yesterday said that both sides are “not close to a deal”.

“Things did look encouraging at the start of last week and became less favourable during the week,” the Taoiseach said. “I’ll let the different parties account for themselves about what went wrong. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin are arguing about the intricacies of an Irish language act and it would seem to me that what the people of Northern Ireland want is for their politicians to get together.”

Bill Clinton

Former US president Bill Clinton held separate meetings on Tuesday afternoon in Belfast with Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill to ascertain the prospects of the return of Stormont.

Directly after being honoured by Dublin City University for his contribution to peace and reconciliation in Ireland Mr Clinton flew to Belfast for what were billed as “private” meetings with former first minister Ms Foster and Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Ms O’Neill.

Mr Clinton met Ms Foster at the Culloden Hotel in Cultra on the outskirts of Belfast and, it is understood, then met Ms O’Neill at George Best Belfast City Airport.

The meetings ostensibly were to mark plans to revamp the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh. Located beside the site of the 1987 IRA Remembrance Day bombing, which claimed the lives of 12 people, it was opened by Mr Clinton in 2002. The centre has not been fully functioning as a conference and exhibition space for a number of years.

Now Dublin City University, the Ulster University and University of Massachusetts have come together in a joint initiative to “renew and enhance the peace-building vision” of the centre.