North’s five largest parties to hold first talks since June

Sinn Féin, DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance resuming efforts to restore Stormont

Talks facilitated by the British and Irish governments, aimed at restoring Stormont, have largely been between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Talks facilitated by the British and Irish governments, aimed at restoring Stormont, have largely been between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The first multi-party meeting since June between Northern Ireland’s five largest parties is expected to take place on Monday.

Talks facilitated by the British and Irish governments, aimed at restoring Stormont, have largely been between the DUP and Sinn Féin since the Executive was collapsed by the late former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness more than a year ago.

Speaking ahead of the first roundtable talks between Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party, since last summer, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood warned the British and Irish governments a continued “hands-off approach” will see the largest two parties “carry on threatening to write the obituary of the Good Friday Agreement”.

He called on both governments to “wake up to the political reality that they are not bystanders in our politics” and to break “the cycle of failure”.

“It is the authority and the balance provided by the two governments which ultimately underpins the politics of Northern Ireland, ” he said.

“Their job is not alone to be facilitators of these talks – their job is to be forceful in finally driving these negotiations to a conclusion.”

‘Perfect storm’

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA has warned “a perfect storm” of threats to the Northern economy will hamper its future prospects.

The party’s economy spokesperson said the combination of political instability, Brexit and budget cuts posed a risk of long-term damage, especially when considering the region was starting from a lower base.

He said the current talks process is “drifting along with seemingly little concern for the impact of a vacuum of decision-making and reform on our public services and the economy”.

Dr Farry believes political instability is holding back many reforms happening elsewhere, such as an industrial strategy or productivity plan.

“UK government studies also show all regions will suffer under Brexit, but with Northern Ireland suffering the most,” he added.

“And this is before the implications of any hard Border are taken into account.”

Progress report

Secretary of State Karen Bradley is expected to give a talks progress report to Westminster later this week and civil servants running Stormont’s Departments in the absence of devolved government have said they need a new budget as finances are about to reach “crunch point”.

With budget decisions required this month, Dr Farry feels it is likely health and education will be protected, and other aspects of public services could face disproportionate cuts.

“There is a real danger this prolonging economic impasse is doing real damage to our long-term economic prospects,” he said.

“Voices in the business community are alert to these dangers. Northern Ireland is already at a lower base, and our prospects of catching up and even overtaking our competitor regions will become even more challenging.”