Dublin and London in joint effort to restart Stormont talks

Sinn Féin reiterates call for Irish language Act as DUP asks Bradley to intervene

Northern Ireland talks: Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Government Buildings with their Sinn Féin colleague Conor Murphy. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Northern Ireland talks: Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Government Buildings with their Sinn Féin colleague Conor Murphy. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

An intense round of political and diplomatic activity began in Dublin, Belfast and London yesterday in an attempt to restart talks to restore the Northern Ireland Executive.

But with the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, reiterating there would be no re-forming of Stormont’s powersharing Executive without an Irish language Act, and the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, calling on the British government to start “taking decisions” in the North, there appeared to be little sign of a possible breakthrough.

Ms McDonald and Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at Government Buildings in Dublin yesterday evening.

During the talks the Sinn Féin leaders warned against allowing a vacuum to develop in the North. They also asked the Government to establish the intergovernmental conference provided for in the Belfast Agreement, which would give Dublin a say over aspects of government in the North.

An Irish Government source played down the possibility of such a move in the short term. Dublin and London are instead likely to seek to pressure Sinn Féin and the DUP to revive the talks on restarting the Stormont administration.

A senior Sinn Féin source said it was “not credible” to suggest talks would reconvene, however, claiming the two governments were engaged in “wishful thinking”.

Opposition to direct rule

Mr Varadkar spoke to the British prime minister, Theresa May, by telephone after meeting Sinn Féin. The Government said he emphasised its “full commitment to the Good Friday agreement, and its determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions”. The statement reiterated the Government’s opposition to the reintroduction of direct rule from Westminster in the North.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said Ms May “believed there was scope for agreement and reiterated the UK government’s priority was still to get devolution up and running again in Northern Ireland”. She said the two leaders “agreed to continue to stay in close contact as the parties reflect on the best way forward to re-establish devolved government”.

Mr Coveney also spoke by telephone to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley.

In Belfast, Ms Foster also spoke to Ms Bradley by phone and effectively asked her to begin governing Northern Ireland. She asked her “to not only set a budget but also take key decisions impacting on our schools, infrastructure and hospitals”. “Front-line staff have been living hand to mouth for too long,” Ms Foster added. “I am not prepared to allow this to continue. Decisions need to be taken.” The DUP leader reiterated that she was willing to form an administration immediately, without preconditions.

But Ms McDonald said the Irish language issue was a fundamental requirement for Sinn Féin. “Be in no doubt, there will be no resumption of the institutions until the matter of an Ghaeilge is dealt with.”

She said Sinn Féin and the Government were united in their opposition to direct rule. “Direct rule is not acceptable. Direct rule is not on the table. We have been clear. Nationalism right across Ireland is clear on that point. The Government in Dublin is clear on that point.”