Talks to restore Stormont begin in ‘constructive’ fashion

Sinn Féin claims British government will legislate for same-sex marriage if Assembly fails to pass legislation

Talks aimed at restoring the Northern Executive and Assembly are due to  begin at Stormont on Tuesday. Photograph: AFP

Talks aimed at restoring the Northern Executive and Assembly are due to begin at Stormont on Tuesday. Photograph: AFP

 

Talks to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly have begun constructively, with political parties asked to set up groups to tackle key issues, such as the Irish language and same-sex marriages.

The Stormont talks were hosted by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney who said the working groups would be tasked with reaching agreement on the core issues.

Current and former senior civil servants such as Sir David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and its former head, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, will chair some of the groups, which are to meet regularly.

Round-table meeting, involving party leaders, will take weekly, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May will meet at the end of the month to review progress and consider any necessary next steps.

“In the wake of the appalling killing of Lyra McKee, the people of Northern Ireland have made clear that they want collective political leadership and urgent political progress,” Ms Bradley and Mr Coveney stated jointly.

“I think it was a positive start today. Certainly all of the parties and their leaders were very constructive for the initial meeting that we had today, but clearly we have a lot of work to do,” said Mr Coveney later.

Resolvable

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said the DUP would not be found wanting, but called for a “balanced way forward” that “everyone in Northern Ireland is comfortable with”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the disagreements are resolvable. “There is an unanswerable demand and appetite right across society for people’s rights to be recognised and protected,” she said.

The leaders of the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance, Colum Eastwood, Robin Swann and Naomi Long warned, however, that the talks must not become dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin senior talks negotiator Conor Murphy said the British Government would legislate for same-sex marriage if the Assembly failed to pass legislation on the issue.

The proposal contained in the aborted agreement would have seen an attempt made at Stormont to introduce same-sex marriage, which would have been opposed by the DUP’s 28 Assembly members .

The DUP is short of two votes to pass a petition of concern that would have blocked such a move, though they would likely have gained the support of Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.

Mr Murphy said Sinn Féin had sought but failed to get assurances from the UUP that none of its MLAs would support a DUP petition but regardless Sinn Féin had a deal with the British government on the matter.

“If [a motion on same sex marriage] failed we had an assurance that it would be passed in Westminster. If the Assembly failed [to pass] or blocked the issue of equal marriage then it would be legislated for in Westminster,” Mr Murphy told BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan programme on Tuesday.

Compromise

The Stormont talks, to be finished by mid-June, will debate the reformation of the NI Civil Service, ways to make the Executive more accountable and sustainable, and agreeing a programme for government.

The structure, deliberately, or otherwise, follows the advice of former DUP leader Peter Robinson that the talks agenda has to be widened, to ensure that every party can claim victory of some sort at its end.

Last year’s proposed language compromise could be revisited, seeing the creation of three acts – an Irish Language Act, an Ulster-Scots Act and a Respecting Language and Diversity Act – being introduced by a restored Assembly.

The first two would be incorporated into the third, letting Sinn Féin claim it had a standalone act, while the DUP and other unionists could argue that the third act was the more important, all-embracing legislation.