Talks to restore NI Assembly to begin with trust-building focus

Sources express hope rather than optimism about breakthrough in coming weeks

Senior sources say it will be necessary for the two largest parties to demonstrate they want to make a revived Stormont work. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Senior sources say it will be necessary for the two largest parties to demonstrate they want to make a revived Stormont work. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

 

Talks aimed at restoring the North’s power-sharing institutions get under way at Stormont House near Belfast today, with senior Government figures in Dublin hoping the first phase of talks this week will build trust between the parties.

Irish and British government officials have been finalising plans for the talks in a series of contacts over the weekend, while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Karen Bradley spoke yesterday.

The timetable and structure of the talks will be presented to the five Northern Irish parties this morning, but senior figures in Dublin say they hope the initial phase can be used to establish trust between the two biggest parties that will dominate the talks, the DUP and Sinn Féin. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance are also involved.

Senior sources confess they are hopeful rather than optimistic of a breakthrough over the coming weeks, and say it will be necessary for the two largest parties to demonstrate they want to make a revived Stormont work.

Officials in the two governments have mapped out a path to progress in the talks, but sources say the sequencing of various issues will remain flexible in order to allow the governments to pace the most difficult issues.

Ultimately, sources say any agreement is likely to be along the lines of the deal between the two parties abandoned last year, when the DUP membership objected to a stand-alone Irish-language Act that would have recognised in law the rights of Irish speakers in the North.

The issue is a must-have for Sinn Féin, but the DUP is likely to insist that any legal changes are not too intrusive for its membership to accept.

Sinn Féin will seek a route to the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the liberalisation of abortion law in the North. In return the DUP will look for guarantees that Sinn Féin will not collapse the executive again in the event of political difficulties.

Sinn Féin walked out in January of 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, citing concerns over a scheme to subsidise renewable energy.

Round-table meeting

Events will begin at Stormont House this morning when Mr Coveney and Ms Bradley will meet to discuss their joint approach this morning, before chairing a round-table meeting involving negotiating teams from the five parties. The two governments hope progress can be made relatively quickly and a deal to revive the Stormont institutions can be agreed within three weeks.

However, one Dublin official struck a note of caution about expectations last night, pointing out that the results of the local elections in the North – where both the DUP and Sinn Féin held their leading positions – did not show that voters in the North were punishing them for the absence of the powersharing administration.

Meanwhile, in an effort to improve the atmosphere before the talks, Ms Bradley has announced a £105 million investment package for the Derry region.

In a statement issued by the Northern Ireland Office, Ms Bradley said: “This £105 million investment package is a major boost to the economic potential of the region and will help strengthen the foundations for greater prosperity and a stronger, more united society.

Mr Coveney will also travel to London with Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan on Monday to meet British ministers at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.