Northern Ireland secretary in talks with DUP, Sinn Féin to avert Stormont crisis

Stand off between parties over Irish language Act, appointment of First Minister, deputy

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

 

Sinn Féin has held talks with the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a bid to avert a fresh political crisis at Stormont.

Brandon Lewis flew into Belfast on Wednesday for further talks with local politicians, saying he is exploring “all options” in his efforts to keep powersharing on track.

At around 7.30pm on Wednesday, Sinn Féin members left Stormont in a three-car convoy, which drove past the media without stopping for comment, despite previously indicating they would.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson later said: “We have had an initial meeting.

“We’re seeking more information and clarification.

“As and when we have the clarity we need, we will speak to the media.”

Mr Lewis also met with members of the DUP on Wednesday evening.

DUP leader Edwin Poots and First Minister designate Paul Givan left a meeting with Mr Lewis at around 8.45pm.

The pair also drove away from Stormont House without stopping to speak to the media.

Irish language Act

It comes amid a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP over the appointment of a new First and deputy First Minister, and the introduction of Irish language legislation provided for in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal.

Failure to come to an agreement would collapse the devolved Executive.

Before the meeting, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald told reporters their call to push Irish language legislation through Westminster was the “obvious way forward.”

She said: “As you know, 48 hours ago we offered up a solution to this impasse.

“That is that the cultural package including Acht Gaeilge, the Irish language Act, goes through Westminster.

“That’s the option now, that’s how we sort this out efficiently and we are now going in 48 hours later to see what the British government’s response to that solution is.

“It’s the obvious way forward.”

Earlier the DUP’s Economy Minister Paul Frew warned such a move risked destabilising devolution.

He said: “We have devolution and the Secretary of State needs to be careful that he doesn’t do anything that would undermine devolution at this time.”

Speaking ahead of the meeting Mr Lewis told BBC Radio Ulster: “The DUP and Sinn Féin have got to work together, delivering on New Decade, New Approach.

“Within that there is a cultural package, and it is a package that works for the whole community of Northern Ireland.

“And how they can deliver that as parties in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland.

“With devolution the best way to see these things delivered, which the parties agreed on in NDNA, is having it delivered locally in Northern Ireland by the parties.”

Nomination

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster’s resignation as first minister on Monday set a seven-day clock running within which her successor, Mr Givan, must be appointed.

The joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill meant Ms O’Neill was automatically removed from the post on Monday and she must also be nominated to the role again within those seven days.

However, Sinn Féin has made clear it will not renominate, a move that would collapse the devolved Executive, unless the DUP agrees to press ahead with legislating on the Irish language.

If one of the parties fails to renominate before 1pm next Monday, a properly functioning Executive cannot be formed and the UK government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election within a “reasonable” timeframe.

Irish language laws are an unfulfilled commitment within the 2020 deal that restored powersharing at Stormont.

Mr Poots, who replaced the ousted Mrs Foster, has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, including Irish language legislation.

However, he has declined to give Sinn Féin an assurance that he will move on the language laws in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the republican party, and has insisted there are other priorities the Executive should be focusing on, including the health service and economy. – PA