Governments primed to release text of deal to restore Stormont
Dublin and London believe they have devised a ‘fair and balanced’ agreement to reinstate Northern Executive and Assembly
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster speaks to media in the great hall of Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
The British and Irish governments on Tuesday night were primed to release their best estimation of what constitutes an agreement to restore the Executive and Assembly.
Senior sources said Mr Coveney and Mr Smith planned not only to present their text of what would be a “fair and balanced” deal to the North’s five main parties this week but that they also were poised to release the document to the public.
The sources said the text could be released as early as Wednesday or possibly Thursday. Sources said that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Northern Secretary were “very keen on transparency”.
It is understood that the politicians will have first sight of the document but that shortly thereafter, possibly the following day, the text will be released to the public.
Both Mr Coveney and Mr Smith believe, the sources said, that three years after the collapse of Stormont, and after several rounds of failed negotiations to restore the Assembly, all the key divisive issues have been discussed to exhaustion and that now is the time to present what they consider a good deal.
They also believe in the midst of a health service crisis, a nurses strike on Wednesday and more health workers’ industrial action on Friday, as well as other pressures on the public services, that most people would believe that what is on offer to reinstate Stormont does constitute a reasonable deal.
They hope, according to the sources, that public pressure on the politicians to get Stormont functioning again could assist in their efforts to bring back powersharing politics, notwithstanding the risk of one or more of the parties baulking at what they might see as an attempt to “bounce” them into a deal.
The two main issues yet to be fully resolved, the sources said, are the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish language act and how and whether the petition of concern should be amended. The petition is a mechanism whereby with 30 signatories motions can be vetoed in the Assembly, even if they have majority support.
DUP negotiators came under pressure on Tuesday when the grand master of the Orange Order, the Rev Mervyn Gibson repeated his institution’s opposition to a standalone Irish language Act.
He told the BBC he had no issues with the language but opposed it “being used as a political weapon”.
What currently is on offer on the language, it is understood, involves over-arching cultural and identity legislation that also would include legislation on the Irish language.
Dublin and London while believing what they have devised should satisfy both the public and most of the politicians also acknowledge that it will require some political compromise. This was reflected in what Mr Coveney told The Irish Times last week, “I don’t think any one party will read this (text) and say, ‘If I was going to write it this is what it would look like’. There are compromises required from everybody in order to make this work.”
Negotiations ran all through Tuesday at Stormont and resume on Wednesday amid a greater sense of political urgency. Mr Smith said he will call Assembly elections if there is no deal by Monday and he is fully supported in this stance by Mr Coveney.
Mr Smith on Tuesday updated the British cabinet on the talks. Boris Johnson told ministers that every effort must be made to find an agreement between the parties.
“Everything that is possible must be done to restore the Executive before the deadline of January 13th. Three years without a government in Northern Ireland is far too long,” he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the negotiators were “alert” to this deadline. She said once the governments had presented the parties with their estimate of a deal the DUP would assess whether it addressed the party’s remaining concerns.
She sounded a mildly positive note in saying, “I think everybody is in the space where they want to do a deal. Let’s get down, let’s focus and make sure we do that deal. We are ready to do a deal and if there is fair balanced text put toward us we will do that deal.”
“The problems and difficulties are well rehearsed. There have been three years of intensive and non-intensive talks and, as we can see, there is no real intensity. We would like to see that stepped up within the next 24 hours,” he added.