North talks at ‘very key’ stage as Brokenshire extends deadline

Sinn Féin and DUP fail to reach deal to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament buildings, Belfast, as talks to save the Northern Ireland Power sharing executive continue. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament buildings, Belfast, as talks to save the Northern Ireland Power sharing executive continue. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Talks designed to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly have reached a “very key” stage, senior Sinn Féin negotiator Conor Murphy said at Stormont on Tuesday.

The DUP and Sinn Féin remained locked in negotiations at Parliament Buildings, Stormont after Northern Secretary James Brokenshire extended his deal or no-deal deadline of midnight on Monday night.

Newry and Armagh Assembly member Mr Murphy in a brief lunchtime doorstep at Stormont said Sinn Féin was back in the talks “trying to get the DUP to accept the basic rights for citizens here which apply to citizens’ right across these islands”.

He would not go into the detail of what progress has been made but warned that if Mr Brokenshire began introducing a budget for Northern Ireland through Westminster that would crash this round of negotiations.

The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January and the region has been without a powersharing government since then.

Despite endless rounds of discussions, a deal to restore power sharing has proved elusive, with the introduction of an Irish language act seen as the main issue.

On Tuesday Mr Brokenshire was due to make a statement to the House of Commons on whether there was an agreement to restore the Executive and Assembly or whether the talks had failed and he must therefore begin the process of introducing a budget for Northern Ireland through Westminster.

Instead late on Monday night he extended the talks to allow more negotiations on Tuesday.

He is expected to make a statement in the House of Commons on the current state of the talks on Wednesday.

It remains unclear whether in the event of no agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin that he would begin moving a budget for the North.

Dealing with the past

On Tuesday Mr Murphy warned, “We have made it clear that if a British Secretary of State stands in the House of Commons to move a budget then that is a clear statement that this phase of the talks process has failed.”

The talks have been bogged down over a number of issues including same sex marriage, dealing with the past and holding inquests into past killings of the Troubles.

The main issue blocking a deal is over the Irish language with Sinn Féin seeking a free-standing Irish language act and the DUP insisting language legislation must also embrace Ulster Scots and other “cultural” matters.

Sinn Féin negotiator Gerry Kelly seen in the party’s offices at Stormont, Belfast, as Northern Ireland’s two main parties remain locked in talks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin negotiator Gerry Kelly seen in the party’s offices at Stormont, Belfast, as Northern Ireland’s two main parties remain locked in talks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

When asked was a stand-alone Irish language act still the bottom line for Sinn Féin endorsing a deal Mr Murphy replied, “I don’t want to get into the detail of the negotiations.

“This is a very key time in relation to those and I want to make sure that we protect the ability to try and reach an agreement.”

Mr Murphy however criticised politicians from the smaller parties such as the SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance who he accused of wanting a “deal at any price”.

He added: “Are they prepared to accept that the rights of LGBT people, the rights of people who have been waiting 45 years for a legacy inquest, the rights of those of us who want to see acceptance and recognition of our Irish national and cultural identity - are those rights to be given up in order to get these people back into their jobs?”

‘Credibility issue’

Mr Murphy said Sinn Féin was engaged in the talks not for selfish party political interest but to achieve and protect rights for people and to “ensure that any institution which is put back is done so on the basis of the Good Friday agreement”.

He acknowledged that there was a “credibility” issue if the talks continued to run on.

“There is a credibility issue the longer they drag on. We are very conscious of the credibility issue for these negotiations,” he said.

Mr Brokenshire justified extending the talks deadline on Monday night by stating that “further progress” was made in Monday’s talks.

He also disclosed that the DUP and Sinn Féin had made certain “additional requests” which the British government is now considering.

This raised a certain level of hope that the talks could yet succeed as a pattern of the many previous sets of crucial talks was for parties to present an additional “shopping list” of demands close to the conclusion of negotiations.

Mr Brokenshire did not provide details of what the DUP and Sinn Féin are seeking.

Sources said part of Sinn Féin’s requests were for up to £150 million to deal with outstanding Troubles-related inquests.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is also at Stormont as the DUP and Sinn Féin continued their negotiations on Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday he tweeted, “Back in Stormont - deadline extended after progress yesterday. Everyone working hard to get a deal across the line.”