Dublin and London in fresh attempt to end Stormont deadlock
Simon Coveney and Karen Bradley to hold meetings with North’s five main parties
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said people in the North should be afforded the same rights as citizens of the Republic and the rest of the UK. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland parties return to Stormont on Wednesday for what Sinn Féin has described as a “short, sharp phase of negotiation” aimed at restoring power-sharing.
Ahead of the talks on getting the Assembly and Executive up and running after a 12-month break, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said people in the North should be afforded the same rights as citizens of the Republic and the rest of the UK.
He was referring to rights-based disputes around the Irish language and same-sex marriage that are seen as standing in the way of a return to devolved government at Stormont. The DUP and Sinn Féin have been engaged in a standoff over the republican party’s demands for legislative protections on the two issues.
“People in Ireland and in Britain can marry their same sex partner, I don’t see why Northern Ireland should be exceptional in that regard,” Mr Varadkar said in the Dáil. “The same thing applies to issues such as language legislation and language rights . . . If these apply in Ireland, Scotland and Wales I think they should also apply in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Coveney and Ms Bradley will assess the prospects of, primarily, the DUP and Sinn Féin finding a resolution on the disputed issues, which also include a a Bill of rights and Troubles killings inquests.
After at least four deadlines for breaking the deadlock were breached last year the two governments have not laid down any specific date for the conclusion of these negotiations, although Ms Bradley has set February 7th as the date when she wants to report to the House of Commons on what progress has been made.
She described that date as a “milestone” and said she hoped her update to parliament would be a “positive” one. Ms Bradley also told the BBC that in terms of calls for an independent mediator to chair the talks she was “not ruling anything out”.
Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said her party wanted to find a way through the current impasse and was prepared to “enter into a short, sharp phase of negotiation”. She said the issues such as marriage and language rights “should not be politically contentious”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he would press the British and Irish governments in the talks to “end the cloak of secrecy” and specify what progress was made in the various rounds of talks last year.
Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member Steve Aiken said if these talks were not successful the British government should “take responsibility and ensure that Northern Ireland has some form of functioning government, whether that is a voluntary coalition or move to direct rule”.
Mr Coveney said with the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement approaching in April he was very mindful “of the ongoing responsibility of the British and Irish governments, as co-guarantors, to ensure the effective functioning of that agreement and all of its institutions”.
He said he and Ms Bradley were determined to assist the return of devolution. “I do not dispute that there are difficult negotiations ahead for the parties and we all know that time is short,” he said.
“However, everyone agrees that devolution and a power-sharing Executive are in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland and I believe everyone is willing to strive to achieve that,” added Mr Coveney.