Northern talks to continue until Monday as deadline is missed

Negotiations on power-sharing allowed to continue despite 4pm deadline passing

Negotiations to salvage powersharing in Northern Ireland continue as parties mount a last-ditch effort to strike a deal.

 

The UK Government has announced negotiations to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland will be allowed to extend until Monday, despite Stormont parties missing today’s statutory deadline to reach agreement.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the passing of Thursday’s 4pm deadline “does not mean the efforts to restore the executive are ending”.

“We are now allowing the parties space to continue the discussions,” she said.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday outlining the Government’s intentions.

If a deal is not reached, Northern Ireland faces the prospect of some version of direct rule from Westminster or yet another snap Assembly election.

Shortly before 2 pm the Assembly communications office issued a statement saying that the rescheduled 2 pm meeting of the Assembly was cancelled.

That meeting was to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a team of Northern Executive Ministers. The cancelling of the meeting meant this was not possible by the 4pm deadline.

DUP negotiator Edwin Poots said his party was willing to nominate Ministers on Thursday but that this had been opposed by Sinn Féin.

He said there was “considerable work to be done” before there was any prospect of a deal.

Mr Poots seemed to suggest that the deadline had been extended and said Mr Brokenshire would make a statement in the House of Commons on Monday and in the meantime the talks would continue.

He said he would like to see a deal achieved by Monday although he did not see Monday as a new deadline for an agreement. “I think we can achieve this by Monday,” said Mr Poots.

“This paralysis is not good for Northern Ireland,” he added.

Disagreements

Mr Poots also indicated there were still difficult disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

He said: “If anybody thinks they are going to collapse Stormont, get all of their demands and go back in there then they may think again because that is not the way we do business.”

The key sticking point in the way of a deal has emerged as Sinn Féin’s demands for an Irish Language Act, which would bestow official protection for Gaelic speakers.

The DUP is willing to legislate on the language issue, but only if Ulster Scots speakers are included in any Act, a condition Sinn Féin has rejected.

Earlier the British and Irish governments had expressed confidence that a deal could be done.

In a joint press conference Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the Northern Secretary in said they were encouraged that “significant progress” has been made in the talks.

Mr Brokenshire said a number of issues remain outstanding.

“And I’m urging the parties to continue focusing all of their efforts on achieving this.

“The UK government will work with the parties toward their critical objective of forming an executive.

“But I’ve made clear to party leaders that it is for them to reach agreement.” Mr Brokenshire added: “That prize remains achievable and remains my focus.”

Mr Coveney said the last three days of talks were intensive and that he was encouraged by the discussions.

“There still remain gaps to be bridged on some key issues,” he said. “Like the Secretary of State I believe that an agreement is still within reach, an agreement that would allow a powersharing executive to be formed on a sustainable basis.”

Mr Coveney said all parties are committed to the successful operations of all the political institutions in Belfast and everyone was convinced devolution was the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

“With courage and goodwill this can be achieved and everybody here is continuing to focus on a positive outcome,” he said.

Snap election

The institutions imploded in January when DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced from office after Sinn Féin’s then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, quit in protest at the DUP’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - a scheme that left the administration facing a £490 million overspend.

His move triggered a snap Assembly election in March. A number of attempts to restore power-sharing between the five main parties following that poll floundered, with three British government deadlines for a deal having already been missed.

British prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “If, despite our collective efforts, it proves impossible to re-establish the executive, we will need to consider the options to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability that it needs.

“In terms of what those options are, I wouldn’t get into that at this stage.”