British and Irish governments set to announce new Northern talks

‘Short window’ for talks to reach successful conclusion

Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney  with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley. The two governments  are expected to jointly announce  new multiparty talks aimed at getting Stormont going. Photograph: PA

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley. The two governments are expected to jointly announce new multiparty talks aimed at getting Stormont going. Photograph: PA

 

A new phase of talks aimed at restoring government in Northern Ireland after more than a year without an executive are to begin next week.

The Irish and British governments are expected to jointly announce on Thursday that a new, short and intensive phase of multiparty talks will begin on January 24th aimed at getting Stormont up and running.

Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning devolved government since last January when the late Martin McGuinness resigned over the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme and other matters.

Key stumbling blocks include differences around access to civil marriage for LGBT couples, an Irish language act, a Bill of rights and legacy inquest funding.

On Thursday afternoon at Stormont House, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, and new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley, are expected to announce the new phase of talks.

‘Time is short’

At a press conference alongside Mr Coveney, Ms Bradley is expected to say it has become clear to her that “time is short and one last opportunity to reach agreement remains”.

She will speak of the DUP and Sinn Féin having made progress in “closing the gaps between them on a range of difficult issues that have prevented the formation of an executive”.

Ms Bradley believes that while the “gaps are narrow” there are still “significant differences to be overcome” and that it is possible for agreement to be reached.

A new phase of talks will involve Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP, the UUP, the Alliance Party, and the two governments.

“The people of Northern Ireland cannot continue to have their public services suffer by the lack of an executive and without ministers making key policy and budget decisions,” Ms Bradley will say.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill is due to meet with Ms Bradley and Mr Coveney in Stormont on Thursday.

Direct rule

A spokesman for Sinn Féin said the party believed there should be “meaningful and focused and time-limited discussions”.

It would “soon become clear if the level of engagement” was what was required, he said.

In Dublin, Government sources said that there was “a short window” for the talks to reach a successful conclusion. The two governments believe the talks must conclude in February. If no agreement is reached, a new election, or direct rule from London – with the possible input of a British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference – will be considered by the governments.