The window for talks to restore the North's power-sharing Assembly is "closing rapidly" and negotiations must resume at the latest after the general election, the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has warned.
“We are certainly committed that after this election, we need to get back around the table and have those discussions, if not before,” Ms Long said, “because every day that we don’t do that is a lost opportunity.”
Ms Long was speaking at the launch of the Alliance Party's election manifesto in Belfast this morning. Among its key commitments is a pledge to support "holding urgent, time-bound talks led by an independent mediator" and to hold fresh Assembly elections if agreement can't be reached before the current deadline of January 13th.
“This continual talking without walking is not going to deliver any progress,” Ms Long said, “so whilst I am happy to go back into talks and will do so in good faith and with the intent of finding solutions, what we need are for the two main parties to come to the table willing to compromise.
“Without that commitment to do so and without the commitment to get the Assembly up and running by January 13, then I think we have no option at that stage but to go back to the people and ask them to return a different Assembly, one capable of actually forming an Executive.”
The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, also called for "immediate and meaningful dialogue" after the general election involving all parties aimed at restoring devolution.
In a speech to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce in Belfast on Monday, he said "these new negotiations must be different. They must be focussed, time-bound and outcome driven.
“But they should also be preceded by an agreement from all parties that if consensus is not reached, the British and Irish Governments should table their own version of a balanced restoration package that can be put to parties and to the public.”
Northern Ireland has been without a power-sharing Assembly at Stormont since January 2017, when it collapsed amid a row over a botched renewable heating scheme.
In an interview with PA news agency on Sunday, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, called for a resumption of negotiations with Sinn Féin after the UK general election on December 12th. The failure to reach agreement over a stand-alone Irish Language Act remains the main obstacle to the resumption of power-sharing.
Ms Foster said the dispute, which she said centred on the “details” of proposed legislation, should not be allowed to continue to prevent the restoration of the Assembly.
“If we’re genuinely wanting to move Northern Ireland forward, which of course I am, let us get into those negotiations after the general election is over and let’s get devolution back again.”
Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, said in response that her party stood “ready to form a credible, sustainable and inclusive executive.”
The North's Secretary of State, Julian Smith, said he welcomed the pledges by "both major NI party leaders to commit to immediate talks after GE [the general election]."
In its manifesto, the Alliance Party also gave its backing to a second referendum on Brexit with the option to remain in the EU and pledged increased support for the integration of housing and education in the North. The party also set a target of zero greenhouse gas emissions in a decade and pledged to reform the voting system for general elections.
“Brexit can still be stopped,” Ms Long said. “Democracy did not end in June 2016 – people have the right to change their mind and demand better than new barriers and reduced opportunities.”
Ms Long also defended the party’s decision not to stand aside in any constituencies in the forthcoming general election in favour of pro-Remain candidates.
Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party have all chosen not to run in certain constituencies in order to maximise the chances of a single pro-Remain candidate.
Ms Long said she believed the Alliance Party was best placed to represent the electorate at Westminster, and it was up to voters to make their own decision.
“We will not deny them that choice, we will not rob them of the opportunity to choose better,” she said.