Differences between parties are ‘on the margins’ says senior DUP negotiator

Continuing mood of optimism that deal can be found to restore Stormont

DUP senior negotiator Edwin Poots said: “The key issue for us is health, the number one priority.” File photograph: Kevin Boyes

DUP senior negotiator Edwin Poots said: “The key issue for us is health, the number one priority.” File photograph: Kevin Boyes

 

The differences between the Northern parties were “on the margins”, DUP senior negotiator Edwin Poots said on Wednesday as the British and Irish governments and the North’s five main parties sought to strike a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Talks continued late at Stormont on Wednesday following a roundtable session of negotiations chaired by Northern Secretary Julian Smith and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

The parties are under considerable pressure from the public to restore Stormont, particularly because of the crisis in the health service which resulted in a strike by nurses and other health workers on Wednesday.

The mood at Stormont remained positive that a deal could be done before the January 13th deadline set by Northern Secretary Mr Smith. If there is no deal by then he said he will call new Assembly elections which, following the Westminster election results, would not suit the North’s two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Former DUP health minister Mr Poots acknowledged the public desire to see Stormont back addressing issues such as health, education and jobs. “We know exactly what the public are saying and we will follow through on that. We will do our utmost to get a sensible deal,” he said.

“The differences (between the parties) are on the margins. The key issue for us is health, the number one priority,” said Mr Poots after the plenary talks session.

One of the key blocks to an agreement is differences between the DUP and Sinn Féin over a proposed Irish language act. Nonetheless, he appeared hopeful of a deal. “There is good will which is critically important to actually getting a deal. Let us build on that goodwill that exists,” he said.

Mr Poots added: “What we need to ensure is that we get a fair and balanced deal. If the parties want to hold out for a one-sided deal, that is not going work. We need a fair and balanced deal, and one where people in both communities, unionist and nationalist, can say, yes that works for me.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said a deal was possible by the January 13th deadline but he did not think it would happen before Christmas. “I can’t see us getting a deal until the new year, if there is going to be a deal. I think all the political parties want to get an agreement,” he added.

He believed this was the last opportunity to save Stormont. “If we can’t get it back up and running by the middle of January we need some form of effective government in Northern Ireland, and if that happens to be direct rule then that is what it is going to have to be,” said Mr Aiken.

Meanwhile, the PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne has warned the three-year absence of a powersharing administration was creating a vacuum that was being filled by “extreme ideas”.

He expressed continuing concern about the dissident republican threat and said that in the past year there were 138 arrests for terrorism offences.

“I would welcome the introduction of devolution and a working government so that we can get answers to the big questions that I need to resolve,” he said.

He said his message to the negotiating politicians was: “Take this chance to get round the table and do what needs to be done to get us back working within an Executive so I can bring forward our plans with the Policing Board to modernise the PSNI and make Northern Ireland safer.”