Northern parties warned powersharing deal must be struck soon

Dublin and London apply pressure ahead of new Stormont talks, which start Wednesday

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

 

The British and Irish governments have warned there is just “weeks rather than months” to restore powersharing to the North, as a fresh round of political talks was announced at Stormont House.

Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and new Secretary of State Karen Bradley announced on Thursday that talks involving the five main parties – DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP and Alliance – and the two governments would commence on January 24th.

Mr Coveney and Ms Bradley declined to give a fixed deadline for agreement to be reached but told reporters the process would take “weeks rather than months” and neither wanted to contemplate failure to get a deal.

“Northern Ireland has now been without a functioning devolved government for more than a year,” Mr Coveney said. “This is not a position that can be sustained for much longer.

“We all have a responsibility over the coming weeks to make every possible effort to secure the effective operation of the devolved powersharing institutions.”

Mr Coveney also said devolved powersharing government is at the heart of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and he looked forward to being back in Belfast next Wednesday for the start of talks.

Ms Bradley has to make a statement to the House of Commons on February 7th regarding progress on the talks, a budget for 2018-19, the prospect of another election and the future of MLA salaries, amid review recommendations to cut payments by a third in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly.

“Without rapid progress, the UK government will face significant decisions,” she said.

Ms Bradley stressed her focus was on seeing devolution restored, an Executive established and “the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past two decades continue”.

Sinn Féin’s view

At a press conference at Parliament Buildings shortly after the two governments made their announcement, Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill said it would be obvious quickly if the British government and DUP would endorse “basic principles of equality, respect and genuine partnership government”.

She confirmed her party would enter the talks process “on a short and intensive basis”.

Ms O’Neill told reporters her party would participate in time-limited negotiations, which she understood would take place over a two-week period.

DUP MLA Simon Hamilton said he welcomed Sinn Féin’s re-engagement and was optimistic about building on the progress made to date.

He said he was reluctant to talk about deadlines but said it was “more than apparent time is short” and that Sinn Féin would have to enter talks with “a significant dose of realism”.

He added: “There is an opportunity to build [on progress]. But that will require some realism from Sinn Féin. If we are going to get a deal that gets devolution up and running again it needs to be a balanced deal. Sinn Féin need to waken up to that realism.

“I think we can achieve a deal but it will require a lot of effort and a significant dose of realism from Sinn Féin.”

‘Not convinced’

Mr Hamilton said the DUP did not want direct rule to be restored but in the absence of a deal “it is incumbent on the Secretary of State to move quickly to ensure there are ministers in place who can take those decisions”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said a deal can be done but he is “not convinced Sinn Féin and the DUP are up for it”.

UUP leader Robin Swann said the process “should not repeat the mistakes of last year’s, excluding other parties and letting the process drift along”.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long gave the announcement of a new phase of talks a “cautious welcome” but reiterated there was a need for an “independent mediator” if they are to have any possibility of success.