Taoiseach urges Northern parties to use ‘limited window’ for talks

Northern secretary says elections are highly likely after contacts with Sinn Féin

Speaking to reporters outside Leinster House, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has said that Arlene Foster treated Martin McGuinness in 'a dismissive way'. Video: Sinn Féin

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said a “limited window” exists for talks to avoid new Northern Assembly elections and he urged political parties to sieze the opportunity.

Speaking after a meeting with Sinn Féin politicians in Dublin, Mr Kenny said: “The situation we now face in Northern Ireland is very serious.

“The best future for Northern Ireland remains in the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, respecting its principles and operating its institutions effectively.

“A limited window for dialogue remains and I am encouraging the parties to engage together to find a way forward that delivers on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions.”

The Taoiseach said he was maintaining close contact with British prime minister Theresa May in efforts to resolve the difficulties.

After his meeting with the Taoiseach, Sinn Féin leader Adams said the Irish and British governments both had a responsibility to defend and implement the Good Friday Agreement.

“The British government will not do this unless the Irish Government holds them to account,” he added.

“The British refusal to fulfil their obligations has to be tackled.”

Earlier, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire, who was meeting political parties at Stormont on Wednesday, indicated that he has accepted the inevitability of Assembly elections.

Mr Brokenshire said at Stormont House that he was trying to determine with the parties if there could be a way forward that would avoid the necessity of elections.

He was told firmly by a Sinn Féin delegation, however, that he should call elections as soon as possible and that the party would not be nominating an Assembly member to replace Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister before Monday’s deadline.

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On Monday, Mr McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in protest at Arlene Foster’s refusal to temporarily step aside pending an investigation into the cash for ash renewable heat scheme that could result in an overspend of up to £490 million over the next 20 years.

As theirs is a joint office, his resignation meant that Ms Foster ceased to act as First Minister.

Mr Brokenshire after meeting Sinn Féin on Wednesday told reporters that notwithstanding continuing efforts to find a compromise between the opposing DUP and Sinn Féin positions that an election was highly probable.

“The high likelihood is that we are looking towards an election but it is incumbent upon me to see if there are ways that may allow us to come together, to see is there a solution here. But the high probability is that we are heading towards an election.”

He said he feared that elections would be divisive and could pose a risk to the powersharing institutions.

Sinn Féin already has insisted that after the election it would be seeking movement on issues such as the Irish language, the future of the Maze prison site, the past and improving current powersharing arrangements.

This indicates that even after the election a period of negotiations would be required to try to get the Northern Executive and Assembly back up and running.

Mr Brokenshire declined to say whether in such circumstances he would suspend Stormont for a period to facilitate such talks, or bring in a return to direct rule from Westminster.

“I don’t think it is right for me to speculate on that,” he said.

“My focus is on the here and now, on what can be achieved now, on what opportunities there are to bring people together rather than seeing people being driven further apart.”

The Sinn Fein health Minister Michelle O’Neill after meeting Mr Brokenshire said that people must “have their say on the renewable heat incentive scandal and the crisis in the political institutions”.

“We told him that there would be no return to the status quo and no return to direct rule,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Adams said his party was “open to talks” with the DUP but “there’s no evidence that an election can be averted”.

The Sinn Féin leader, who was was speaking to journalists at Leinster House, said the party was hopeful Mr McGuinness would recover from his illness.

“Obviously he’s not well and many people were shocked when they saw the TV and other imagery of his press conference the other day,” he said.

“He’s receiving the very, very best of treatment. He and Bernie, his wife, are very buoyed up by the messages of support which they have received from all quarters from right across this island and further afield.”

Mr Adams said he had received messages of support for Mr McGuinness from people in the Protestant community, from former members of the RUC “and from former combatants”.

Earlier, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern said Sinn Féin should accept an invitation to talk with the DUP and he could not see any benefit of an election without an inquiry into the “cash for ash” controversy.

Politicians on both sides should pull back, he said as he called for a preliminary investigation of at least four weeks’ duration.

Mr Ahern told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show it would be pointless to have an election without an inquiry.

“If there was an election in the normal way and you could see a way forward, that would be good, but that won’t happen. I can’t see any benefit. It would be far easier to fix now than after an election.

“Northern Ireland is not yet at a stage where they can move onto a different type of politics. Why would any elected politician in Northern Ireland want to risk any of that? It would be better to try to compromise.”