Governments seek Stormont deal before marching season peak

Simon Coveney wants an agreement to reinstate Northern Executive in ‘next few weeks’

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley speaking to the media outside Stormont House as as attempts to restore power-sharing at Stormont continues. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley speaking to the media outside Stormont House as as attempts to restore power-sharing at Stormont continues. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The British and Irish governments are striving to persuade the North’s five main parties to strike a deal to restore Stormont before the loyalist marching season reaches its height in July.

The Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Karen Bradley after holding round-table talks with the five main Northern parties at Stormont on Thursday said negotiations must now move to an “intensive” level.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May when these talks began at the start of May said they would review progress at the end of this month to determine if there was sufficient progress made to proceed with the negotiations into early summer.

Westminster’s focus on the Conservative party choosing a new leader and prime minister together with the continuing stalemate over Brexit have raised questions over whether it is possible for the British government currently to seriously engage with efforts to bring back Stormont.

There is also the difficulty about whether the DUP in particular would be prepared to compromise on the issue of the Irish language just ahead of the marching season. Other big issues to be resolved include same sex marriage legislation and devising means to make any restored Northern Executive and Assembly more sustainable.

As part of the negotiations a series of working groups are addressing these and a range of other matters. Mr Coveney and Ms Bradley respectively said on Thursday they will recommend that Mr Varadkar and Ms May give the go-ahead for a “very intensive period” of negotiations at leadership level in the coming weeks. Mr Coveney said the aim of such talks would be to reach agreement before the end of June.

“We are looking to get this process done in June. So this is a window that parties can either choose to take or not,” said Mr Coveney.

Said Ms Bradley, “I am positive that there is the right attitude and there is the right will there, but I think it would be wrong for me to do anything other than to be clear that there are still significant challenges that still remain.”

The DUP leader Arlene Foster said useful preparatory work was conducted at the talks but now the politicians must “engage in a fulsome way on very critical issues, on issues that will be challenging and will be difficult”.

“But if we are to form a genuine powersharing administration then we need to deal with those issues. But it has to be done in a way that is balanced and in a way that is fair,” she said.

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald after the roundtable talks said there must be a “step change” in the process and in an apparent reference to an aborted deal Sinn Fein said it had struck with the DUP in February last year said it must be a case that “agreements that are made are agreements that are delivered”.

“The truth is that it is broken promises that have delivered broken politics and we need to fix that,” added Ms McDonald who described the talks as “positive” and energetic.

The challenges were well known, she said. “We have talked the hind legs off several donkeys on all of these issues, so it’s not as though we are breaking new ground here. This is now a question of political will and political leadership,” said Ms McDonald.

The SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said it was clear from the doorsteps during the local and European election campaigns in May that the “people of Northern Ireland right across the North want their politicians back to work”.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said the “mood music” at the talks “was a lot better than I was expecting and a lot better than both governments were expecting”.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the parties were anticipating being back in talks at Stormont starting on Monday “which will hopefully see the restoration of the institutions”.